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FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew: 5 players who will decide the Eastern Conference Final | MLSSoccer.com

FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew: 5 players who will decide the Eastern Conference Final | MLSSoccer.com

One game. That’s all that separates Hell is Rival rivals FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew from hosting MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9.

Ahead of Saturday’s Eastern Conference Final (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), let’s look in-depth at five players primed to have an outsized impact.

It’s simplistic to boil an entire game down to individual matchups or even individual players – that’s not the intent here. Rather, it’s to zero in on key players who represent strengths (and potential weaknesses) before this weekend’s single-elimination match at TQL Stadium.

Everything flows through Luciano Acosta – this year’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP – for FC Cincinnati. Okay, that’s technically everything that doesn’t stem from the incredible Álvaro Barreal at left wingback.

The Argentine No. 10 led Cincy in non-penalty goals during the regular season (10) and in expected assisted goals (10.2), per FBref. With his low center of gravity, Acosta can turn out of tight spots, accelerate forward and break into key attacking areas. Then with his vision, he can thread passes through to his teammates running behind the opposing backline.

I’ll admit: I’m curious about specifically how Acosta is going to influence the Eastern Conference Final. It’s gone under the radar, but he hasn’t gotten on the ball as much in the playoffs (50.6 touches per 90) as he did in the regular season (65.1 touches per 90). Against the ball-obsessed Crew, Acosta will have to work particularly hard to find and change the game.

But can he do it? Of course he can.

It’s the third minute of extra time in Saturday’s Eastern Conference Semifinal at Orlando City. Columbus lose the ball in the final third, but Aidan Morris is ready to spring into action. The homegrown standout sprints towards César Araújo, slides in, wins the ball and finds Christian Ramírez in the box for the Crew’s go-ahead goal.

Counter-pressing hasn’t been the biggest tactical discussion topic for Columbus this year – that honor goes to their aesthetically pleasing possession play – but Morris forced defensive work into the public discourse with that game-changing play up above.

Since Wilfried Nancy’s team is likely to have the ball in Cincinnati’s half of the field for large stretches on Saturday, the Crew will need even more of that energy from Morris. The faster he reacts after Columbus lose the ball, the harder it will be for Cincinnati to play through pressure and find their attackers upfield.

The rising US international is still limited on the ball, but don’t forget: Defensive work rate led to his breakout during MLS Cup 2020. Another impressive counter-pressing outing from Morris could help propel his team to this year’s final.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Columbus Crew are a hard team to slow down. They finished the regular season with the most goals in MLS (67), the most xG (57.7) and the most non-penalty xG (52.2), according to FBref. It won’t be easy, but it will be Yerson Mosquera’s job to slow down Columbus on Saturday.

Mosquera had to step up in Matt Miazga’s suspension-related absence last weekend against Philadelphia, shifting from the right side of Pat Noonan’s back three and into the Defender of the Year‘s central position. The 22-year-old Colombian international did an admirable job defensively – the Union didn’t find much joy in the attack. Mosquera also scored the game-winner in second-half stoppage time.

Now, Mosquera will have the distinct pleasure of patrolling the part of the field the Crew’s Cucho Hernández likes to drift into. How Mosquera deals with his countryman’s movement and how he responds to Columbus’ counter-pressing will define his evening.

It could define Cincinnati’s, too.

At this point, you can’t talk about the Columbus Crew and not talk about Cucho.

The 24-year-old has scored in five of his last six games and continues to spearhead the best attack in MLS. Cucho is mobile, he’s technical, he’s skilled enough to create his own shot, and he’s clever enough to find space off the ball to either shoot himself or set up a teammate with a quality chance. Per American Soccer Analysis, Cucho led all MLS players in the regular season in goals added, a metric that measures the value of a player’s on-ball contributions.

Along with Houston’s Héctor Herrera, Cucho is the only player inside the top 10 to rate positively in all six goals added categories. That illustrates his well-rounded skill set across things like dribbling, passing, receiving, and even defending. With an individual moment of brilliance or as part of a team-wide attacking move, Cucho is fully capable of winning this game for Columbus.

FC Cincinnati’s back three will try to crowd him and make it difficult for the Colombian international to find space to turn and face forward. But truly stopping Cucho for an entire match is close to impossible.

One minute he’s breaking into the box, firing off a dangerous shot towards goal and looking like the best attacker in the entire league. The next minute, he’s doing keepie-uppies deep inside his own half and turning the ball over in a must-win game locked at a 0-0 scoreline.

FC Cincinnati’s Aaron Boupendza pulling out the keepie-uppies on Saturday while deep in his own half in a must-win game trapped at a 0-0 scoreline was *wild*

So much chaotic energy in one single human body.#AllForCincy pic.twitter.com/fqbv3sMZQB

— Joseph Lowery (@joeclowery) November 27, 2023

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Gabon international since he arrived as Cincy’s Brenner replacement partway through the year. Most notably, he was benched by Noonan for disciplinary issues and didn’t start either of Cincinnati’s Round One games against the New York Red Bulls. Boupendza only recently stepped back into a starting role after teammate Dom Badji suffered an injury.

Despite all of the challenges, Boupendza has been awesome in the attack for the Supporters’ Shield winners. Compared to other forwards in MLS during the regular season year, Boupendza landed in the…

  • 99th percentile in non-penalty xG per 90 (all according to FBref)
  • 96th percentile in non-penalty goals per 90
  • 92nd percentile in key passes per 90
  • 85th percentile in successful take-ons per 90
  • 92nd percentile in percentage of aerials won

Now, the sample size is still small for the 27-year-old – he barely played 600 minutes in the regular season. But Boupendza looks physically and technically dominant so much of the time. I mean, just look at how he feeds Acosta, muscles through a defender, and still gets into the box to hit a laser into the bottom corner on this goal sequence against the Red Bulls.

If Cincinnati get more of the lethal Boupendza and less of the unpredictable Boupendza, they’ll be in good shape this weekend.

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