Columbus Crew defeat Los Angeles FC to win MLS Cup

Columbus Crew players celebrate as Christian Ramírez holds up the trophy after defeating the LA Galaxy to win the MLS soccer championship match, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Cucho Hernandez and Yaw Yeboah scored in the first half and the Columbus Crew held on to beat defending champion LAFC 2-1 on Saturday to win their third MLS Cup.

The Crew added the title to their championships in 2008, when they beat the New York Red Bulls, and 2020, when they defeated the Seattle Sounders. Columbus lost to the Portland Timbers in the 2015 title game.

Only the L.A. Galaxy (five) and D.C. United (four) have won more titles.

Los Angeles was looking to become the fourth MLS team to win consecutive titles.

Hernandez scored in the 33rd minute and Yeboah added a goal in the 37th. Denis Bouanga scored for LAFC in the 74th.

First-year coach Wilfried Nancy was pleased with how the Crew finished the match.

“Obviously, really happy because of the second half we knew there would be a difficult moment and the way we were able to enter this difficult moment, that’s why we won,” Nancy said.

“Yes, we played a good first half and I am so happy because the most important thing for me was not to win, was to be ourselves and my players did it.”

Hernandez, voted the MVP of the match, put Columbus up 1-0 on a penalty kick. He deposited the ball in the lower left corner for his fifth goal in six playoff matches this season. He is 9-for-9 from the spot in all competitions in his Crew career.

“I’ve taken seven or eight penalties this year, but this was the one I was nervous,” Hernandez said. “I knew I couldn’t miss it.”

LAFC defender Diego Palacios was whistled for a handball off his right arm at the top of the box, setting up the penalty.

The goal was the first allowed by LAFC in four matches.

Yeboah doubled the lead for the Crew, the highest-scoring team in MLS in the regular season when Malte Amundsen threaded a pass through to Yeboah on the left flank on the last of 11 passes in the buildup.

From there, Yeboah dribbled to the goal box and slipped a shot past Canadian goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.

Crepeau, of Candiac, Que., has won 15 caps for Canada.

“We know that anyone who gets the ball can score for us,” Yeboah said. “We always want to attack. We always want to go.

“Malte, we have a good connection. I’ve been making that run all year.”

 LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said the story of the game was his team’s play in the first half. 

“They played a fantastic game,” Cherundolo said. “They played exactly how you need to play against LAFC. If you want to beat us, create enough moments where we were forced to make mistakes, even though I don’t think they were mistakes that we normally make.”

The objective for the Crew in the second half was to avoid the same fate as FC Cincinnati a week earlier in the Eastern Conference final. Then, Columbus rallied from a two-goal deficit in the final 15 minutes of regulation and won 3-2 in extra time.

Bouanga made it 2-1, scoring on his own rebound after Patrick Schulte made the save at the left post. Bouanga, who led the MLS with 20 goals, has 38 goals in 49 matches in all competitions this year.

“They deserved to win,” LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini said. “I don’t think they’re better in general, but I thought they played much better tonight.”

LAFC had the better of the play after the Bouanga goal, but the Crew did not break.

Assistant L.A. coach Marc Dos Santos is a former Vancouver Whitecaps head coach.

“I’m really proud because as a coach, I want to see my team face and embrace adversity and they did it in our way,” Nancy said.

Crew captain Darlington Nagbe won his fourth MLS Cup, two with the Crew (2020) and also for Atlanta United (2018) and the Portland Timbers (2015) to become the 10th player with four or more.

It was even more special for Nagbe because he missed the 2020 final after he contracted COVID-19 two days before the match.

“He runs the show. He’s the calmest. He’s the man,” Crew midfielder Aidan Morris said.

The Crew missed the playoffs the last two seasons before hiring Nancy from CF Montreal.

Columbus’s front office includes president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko; Jaime McMillan, vice-president, of soccer administration and operations; and Corey Wray, assistant general manager. All three are former Toronto FC front office officials.

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