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LAFC returns to MLS Cup, will face Columbus

Ryan Hollingshead scored late in the first half and defending champion Los Angeles FC advanced to its second straight MLS Cup final with a 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night.

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.

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LAFC, an expansion club in its sixth year of competition, could become MLS' first back-to-back champion since the LA Galaxy (2011-12).

Maxime Crépeau made five saves in his third consecutive shutout for LAFC, which hasn't allowed a goal since October. A 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.

LAFC stood strong in its 52nd match of 2023 -- an MLS record for games played in a calendar year, thanks to the club's competition in several non-league tournaments.

Ryan Hollingshead put LAFC on the path to victory in the Western Conference final.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

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

The 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. But he hit the crossbar on a point-blank chance in the middle of the box, and he was offside on a goal moments later.

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.

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

LAFC had several nervy moments on defense in the second half but stayed strong 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 Denis Bouanga put a ball through to Palacios, and his centering pass was kicked into the net by a sliding Escobar, who played 19 games for LAFC last season. Escobar hung his head in his hands while his teammates attempted to boost his spirits after the crushing mistake.

    

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