Lafc Will Play For Back-To-Back Mls Cup Titles After Beating Houston 2-0 In Western Conference Final

Los Angeles FC defender Giorgio Chiellini clears the ball during the first half in the MLS playoff Western Conference final soccer match against Houston Dynamo, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Los Angeles FC defender Giorgio Chiellini clears the ball during the first half in the MLS playoff Western Conference final soccer match against Houston Dynamo, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — After the longest season in Major League Soccer history, Los Angeles FC still has one more week of work to do.

If the club completes its final assignment as well as it handled Saturday night, the reward will be historic.

Ryan Hollingshead scored late in the first half and defending champion LAFC advanced to its second straight MLS Cup Final with a 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo.

Houston's Franco Escobar scored an own goal in the 80th minute to seal the Western Conference Final for LAFC, which will travel to Columbus next weekend to play for the title. The Crew beat FC Cincinnati 3-2 in a thriller earlier Saturday.

LAFC, an expansion club in its sixth year of competition, has the chance to become MLS' first back-to-back champions since the LA Galaxy (2011-12). LAFC never faded or wilted in its 52nd match of 2023 — an MLS record for games in a calendar year, thanks to the club’s competition in several non-league tournaments.

“Very proud of what we've been able to accomplish over the last two years,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “Very proud of the players who have been mentally through a lot this year, a lot of ups and downs. It's a special group, and I thank them for that every day. Tonight they were able to reward themselves, and we'll look to do the same next week.”

Maxime Crépeau made five saves in his third consecutive shutout for LAFC, which hasn’t allowed a goal since October. An offensive powerhouse since the club's inception, LAFC is looking more like a dominant defensive team over the last several weeks.

“We played our game, and we were very strong in defense,” said MLS Golden Boot winner Dénis Bouanga, whose six-game goal streak ended. “We know what to do. It’s what we did in Seattle (last week), and we’re going to do the same at Columbus. We know how to attack, and we know how to defend, and we showed it tonight.”

Although Houston had more than 70% possession, the LAFC defense led by Giorgio Chiellini and Diego Palacios frustrated the Dynamo, whose nine-game winning streak ended just shy of the franchise's first MLS Cup Final since 2012.

“The (Dynamo) like to play this little tiki-taka in the middle of the field, these little movements, little one-twos, but they're going nowhere,” said Hollingshead, the defender with three goals in the MLS playoffs after scoring only four in the entire regular season. “We just said, ‘Do whatever you want. Have the ball for as long as you want.’ They created zero dangerous chances. They had a half-chance in the first half, and that was it.”

The Black and Gold have reached the brink of a second straight title despite their heavy workload and despite losing several key players from last season's championship team, including high-scoring Chicho Arango and the retired Gareth Bale.

LAFC's home finale felt momentous for reasons beyond the win.

Los Angeles crowd gave a standing ovation to Carlos Vela when he came off in the second half of what might be his final match at BMO Stadium. The club’s first player is out of contract this winter and isn’t sure whether he will return.

The match also could have been the last at home for Chiellini. The Italian great who joined LAFC from Juventus 18 months ago is thought to be considering retirement at 39.

Vela nearly put LAFC ahead twice in the first four minutes before the smoke had cleared from the sold-out BMO Stadium from the pregame fireworks display. LAFC finally broke through in the 44th minute when Chiellini's low header from Vela's corner was saved by Steve Clark, but Hollingshead banged home the rebound for his fifth MLS goal of the season.

“It's the right place at the right time, but it's also kind of knowing,” Hollingshead said. “Steve Clark is a phenomenal goalie, but he doesn't like coming out on set pieces. He likes to stay on his line, so I know with our ability on set pieces that if we can get something on target, it's going to be hard for him to hold it. There's going to be a bobble, so I'm just taking my chances that something is going to pop out, and that's exactly what happened.”

Houston hadn't even trailed during its nine-match unbeaten streak since Sept. 23.

LAFC had a few nervy moments on defense in the second half, but kept the box clean in front of Crépeau, the Canadian goalkeeper who has made a strong late-season comeback after breaking his leg in last year's MLS Cup Final and not returning until late July.

LAFC finally scored again when Bouanga put a ball through to Diego Palacios, whose centering pass was kicked into the net by a sliding Escobar.

Escobar, who played 19 games for LAFC last season, grabbed his head in his hands while his teammates attempted to boost his spirits after the crushing mistake.

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