LAFC fall short of repeat, lose to the Columbus Crew in MLS Cup final, 2-1

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK
LAFC were unable to repeat their epic MLS Cup victory from last year, as they fell to Columbus Crew 2-1 in the 2023 MLS Cup Final.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Just as there is an art to winning without losing your identity, there is art in knowing how to lose with humility and with courage. While Columbus Crew celebrated winning the 2023 MLS Cup, LAFC digested their 2-1 defeat to the now 3-time league champions.

One player stood out for his penchant to do everything he does with honor on and off the pitch. “Everything was so beautiful. I learned in my career how to win. I learned in my career how to lose,” Giorgio Chiellini thoughtfully commented while describing the experience he and his teammates shared across an unprecedented 53-match year that began with them eagerly vying for 6 trophies yet ended with them capturing none. “I think that we have to accept that, and that has to give more energy to the organization for the future.”

The final tally for the Black and Gold’s 2023 year was appearances in three finals, one quarterfinal, and one round of 16, along with an 8-place finish in the overall league standings and their second straight Western Conference championship.

For veterans of the game, despite the sting of defeat, there is an instinctive knowledge that failures teach more than victories. Throughout his two years at the helm of LAFC, Steve Cherundolo has had a recipe: “power, energy and performance.” For him, formations come and go, but those three pillars of a team’s efforts are the keys to success, and players are ultimately in charge of the application. “We didn’t have the power and energy that we normally do. That’s why we lost tonight,” he concluded as questions of this season’s failures loomed from one corner of the room to the other during the post-match presser.

From the first moments of the final in Columbus, one thing was clear – this was the Crew’s turf, and this was their match to win. They hit the soaking wet pitch running with ease, dominating possession, momentum, passing accuracy, attempted shots and duels won. Still, LAFC held the rampage off for the first thirty minutes of the game. Eventually Cucho Hernández made history scoring the Crew’s first-ever goal against LAFC when, in the 32nd minute, he sent Máxime Crepeau the wrong way on a penalty kick conceded by Diego Palacios.

It also ended LAFC’s clean sheet streak at three, and meant that the 2022 MLS Cup champions would have to attempt something they have not been well-suited for this year, a comeback. But rather than allowing LAFC to stymie their attacking wave, Columbus ensured a 2-goal lead in the 37th minute with an incredible line-splitting pass from Malte Amundsen into the space between Jesús Murillo and Ryan Hollingshead which Yaw Yeboah emphatically pounced upon to smash past Crepeau.

And, just like that, the 2023 MLS Cup Final felt eerily a lot like the 2020 MLS Cup Final when Columbus hosted the then defending champions, Seattle Sounders, scoring 2 goals in the first half (before ultimately dispatching them with a final goal in the next).

Unlike Seattle, LAFC attempted to rebound from their limp first half performance. “My message at halftime was that that was not enough. It’s a final, there is no tomorrow, and there’s no reason to rest or to hold back and we were quite disappointed. We showed them their mistakes and that it’s nothing tactical, it’s just poor decision making on the field,” Cherundolo later recalled.

Thus in the 74th minute Murillo finally found an open Denís Bouanga. Bouanga’s first attempt hit Patrick Schulte in the face, but the Golden Boot winner shot the rebound home to give LAFC a much-needed goal, and tie Vela’s 2019 record 38-goal season. But, in spite of an honorable second half effort from the visitors, the Crew’s defenses held out till the final moments, granting the hosts their moment to hoist a 3rd MLS Cup. The Crew, one of MLS’ original clubs, also won MLS Cup titles in 2008 and 2020. Only two clubs, LA Galaxy (5) and D.C. United (4) have won more titles than Columbus.

This iteration of LAFC has endured an emotionally, mentally and physically longer season than they could have anticipated. Their year began with a jumpstart as intense energy boosted them into the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League where they faced a Liga MX opponent at a much more advanced level of form and fitness.

The resulting blow led to a natural drop in power and energy during the summer months as they licked their wounds attempting to heal emotional wounds. LAFC rebounded in the final third of the MLS season just in time to contend for the playoffs. And, finally, the seed that they had planted so early in the year began to grow and take root as their style began to coalesce and solidify, as performance, power and energy synergistically merged.

But history was against them. The weather was against them. Columbus’ indelible offense was against them. This time there is no dramatic star-studded Hollywood ending. It is raw and realistic, painful and true to the last drops of sweat and tears like Italian cinema.

The beauty that Chiellini alluded to all evening is evident. The bonds built from loss are deeper than those created out of joy. As the fallout from this year is revealed over the course of the next month, the truth behind his words will linger and prove lasting. “We will live, and we share huge emotions, good and bad, together. It’s just a moment to say thank you to all of them.”

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