Analysts compared the expected starting XIs of Columbus Crew and LAFC, using ‘Big Data’ to name the Eastern Conference champions as narrow favourites.
The 28th MLS Cup pits two contrasting teams against each other. Columbus were one of ten founding members back in 1996 but have enjoyed a modern day resurrection under Wilfried Nancy this season. LAFC are one of the new powers in the league, winning the trophy last year and now looking to become just the fourth team to retain MLS Cup.
Columbus and LAFC have won two of the last three MLS titles, with New York City winning in 2021. Saturday’s game gives both teams the opportunity to build a dynasty in the league and potentially spark a spell of sustained success. The Crew are the league’s top scorers and have continued their fluid, front-foot style into the post-season. The mighty LAFC are backed by the likes of Will Ferrell and Magic Johnson and boast a cadre of big-name stars on the field.
Ahead of the game analysts have compared the best XIs of the MLS Cup finalists using their BeSoccer ELO values. The player-by-player comparison gives the Crew, who finished the regular season five points ahead of LAFC, a six-to-five advantage. Although the two teams employ different tactical systems, a 4-2-3-1 set-up has been used for both teams here for the purpose of comparison.
The 22-year-old stopper is one of the great hopes for the future of goalkeeping in the USMNT. He has made 36 starts in the league this season, averaging 2.9 saves per game and recording nine clean sheets. Standing 1.91m tall, he dominates the box and has good reach.
The Canadian suffered heartbreak last year, forced off with a broken leg in the 2022 MLS Cup against Philadelphia Union. He missed the opportunity to play in the World Cup but has been key for LAFC since his return this season. His one-on-one ability and reflexes between the posts make him a crucial presence.
The winner is... Crépeau
The Canadian goalkeeper wins narrowly, an indication of the fine margins expected in this MLS Cup. Crépeau has an excellent rating in saves per goal conceded (10) and performs well with high ball (9). He can be decisive in the final.
The 23-year-old Canadian is one of Wilfried Nancy's options at right back; he competes in that position with the American Julian Gressel. Mohamed Farsi was a starter in 26 of the 35 matches he has played so far and has recorded four assists in the 2023 campaign.
A versatile defender who can play both on the left and on the right; Hollingshead loves to join the attack and create overlaods with the wingers. He has been a key source of goals this year, both in the air and on the ground, and has scored three times in the playoffs.
The winner is... Hollingshead
The power of LAFC's fullbacks, one of the team's main offensive assets, is evident in Hollingshead's superiority over his Crew counterpart. He scores well in aerial duels (10), interceptions (10) and on-ball progressions (8), underpinning his importance to the team.
The experienced 29-year-old is a key part of the Crew's ball-playing defence, willing to step into the midfield when required. The Cape Verdean played 38 of 39 games as a starter and accumulated three assists, picking up just three yellow cards.
An authoritive presence for LAFC, Murillo has nailed down his place in the team this season. Just as dominant in the air as he is on the ground, the Colombian boasts great defensive positioning and has impressed across 23 games this year.
The winner is... Moreira
The Cape Verdean offers defensive solidity and on-ball qualities. He scores highly for dribbling out and passing from the defensive third (10). He can play as a right-sided center back or as a right back, with great ability to push forward into the opponent's half and join attacks.
The 32-year-old center back is the defensive leader for the Crew. He has played 36 games this season,starting 32 of them. He has been a key part of 11 clean sheets for the Eastern Conference champions and has even chipped in with a goal.
Despite his 39 years of age, Chiellini has the full confidence of LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo. He may have lost some pace, but the Italian has a wealth of experience to ensure that he is in the right place at the right time.
The winner is... Camacho
The French defender edges out late-career Chiellini. In his prime, Camacho would not have stood a chance against the ex-Juventus Euro 2020 champion but the Crew defender has the edge in 2023. Camacho scores highly in interceptions (10) and is a fierce competitor in one-on-one and aerial duels.
The 25-year-old fullback is one of the most proactive defenders in MLS, capable of joining the attack and playing as a left winger. He started 26 of the 27 games in which he has featured and boasts a fierce shot, scoring four goals.
A constant presence up and down the left flank for LAFC. Palacios possesses a cultured left foot and a creative streak, providing a crucial assist in the Western Conference final against Houston Dynamo. He has been one of the best in his position in MLS this year, contributing both defensively and offensively.
The winner is... Palacios
The Ecuadorian's non-stop work rate give him the edge. He is an imposing physical presence but is just as comfortable on the ball, helping LAFC to play out from the back and launch rapid counter-attacks.
The 33-year-old midfielder is the Columbus captain and he brings a wealth of experience to the team. He has already lifted MLS Cup with Portland Timbers, Atlanta United and Columbus Crew; he is now looking for his fourth title. He has started 37 of 39 games so far this year and recorded four goals.
A box-to-box player whose speed and physical capacity make him a key player for LAFC. In possession he contributes to the team's attacking play, while his reading of the game makes him important defensively. He knows exactly where to be at the crucial moment.
The winner is... Nagbe
The prototypical midfield general, Nagbe is the nerve center of Crew's play. Extremely composed in possession, his distribution rating is exceptional (10). Positioned at the heart of the action he is the linchpin; a defensive midfielder also capable of initiating the offensive phase.
The 22-year-old is one of the USMNT's brightest prospects but already boasts considerable experience. In 2020, aged just 19 years and 27 days, he became the youngest player to start and win an MLS Cup final. This season he has four goals, five assists and 35 starts, and is on the brink of another title.
The Barcelona-born midfielder pulls the strings for the Black and Gold, bringing confident passing and an offensive vision to the two-time MLS Cup finalists. He has featured in every single regular season and playoff game, making him indispensable to Cherundolo.
The winner is... Sánchez
What Nagbe is to Columbus, Sanchez is to LAFC. Transcendental in the midfield, he scores highly in progressive passing (9), recoveries (10), and long passes (10). He sometimes lacks that final pass, but compensates with his counter-pressing, organization and long distribution.
The 26-year-old wide midfielder is one of Columbus' most skillful players, capable of bringing his team up the field. He has three goals and five assists so far this season and has played in 36 games. He is a real live wire for Nancy's team.
Part of Uruguay's exciting crop of young players, Olivera arrived at LAFC this season as part of the Under-22 initiative. He has forced his way into the starting XI with his dynamism, bringing searing pace and direct dribbling on the right flank.
The winner is... Yeboah
The Ghanaian wins by a narrow margin thanks to his powerful yet cultured left foot. He is a potential game-winner for the Crew and adds an unpredictable flair to the team's attack, but is yet to truly hone his finishing.
The versatile 24-year-old joined Columbus in 2021 but has really come into his own this season, featuring in 36 games so far. His direct running is a key part of the Crew's attacking play and he has recorded nine assists this season.
His dribbling ability and change of pace makes him difficult to stop when making runs from deep. He began his career in European soccer and has become an important player for Steve Cherundolo this year, making 29 appearances.
The winner is... Matan
The Romanian's inventiveness is key and he has the edge on creativity (10). He has the vision and composure to find the crucial pass in the final third. He can play as a traditional winger but his mobility allows him to move across the forward line and build attacks as a playmaker.
The 25-year-old Uruguayan returned to MLS this season, following Lucas Zelarayán's departure from Columbus. He has proved a perfect fit in Nancy's starting XI and has recorded five goals and five assists in just 15 games. Now, he is looking to lift MLS Cup against his former team.
The brain of this LAFC team, Vela is a player who can produce magic at any moment. His in-game intelligence makes him a key part of Cherundolo's offensive system and he remains a talisman for the team. He has contributed nine goals and eight assists in 38 games this season.
The winner is... Rossi
There is little to choose between the two but the Uruguayan narrowly edges out his former LAFC teammate. Rossi's attacking potential is well known and his younger age and greater physicality makes him a more potent attacking force.
The Colombian striker is one of the leaders of Nancy's Columbus Crew. So far this season he has 20 goals and eight assists in 32 games, but his value to the team goes beyond that. A complete forward with experience in Europe, he will be desperate to add MLS Cup to his CV.
The 2023 MLS Golden Boot winner hit 20 goals in the regular season and has continued that form into the playoffs. Capable of scoring from any angle and under any circumstances, he is truly unstoppable at his best. He has hit 37 goals in all competitions this year, leaving him just one short of the MLS record.
The winner is... Bouanga
The LAFC striker beats the Colombian in a battle of two of MLS' biggest stars. Bouanga scores top marks for goals scored, shots on goal and dribbling (10) and he has the ability to conjure a goal from nothing. The league's best striker.
The Frenchman made his name as a coach at the helm of the Montreal Impact and he has sparked an incredible turnaround for the Crew. His flexible, front-foot soccer has won over the supporters and resulted in an impressive 53.3% win rate. He is just one game away from ending his first year in Columbus with the MLS Cup title.
Last season the LAFC coach led his team to a historic double, following up the Supporters' Shield triumph with the first MLS Cup in franchise history. This year he has modified his 4-3-3 to allow greater offensive input from the fullbacks and boost their counter-attacking potential. They struggled for consistency in the regular season (46.2% win percentage) but know what it takes to win on the biggest stage.