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LAFC - Houston Dynamo: Key players in the Conference final | Vela, Herrera, Bouanga...

The battle for the Western Conference title reaches a finale on Saturday. Who will progress to next weekend’s MLS Cup showdown?

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LAFC - Houston: Players to watch

LAFC host Houston Dynamo on Saturday night in the Western Conference final.

The game will be played at BMO Stadium between two teams looking to make history in the playoffs. Reigning MLS Cup champions LAFC are looking to become just the fourth team in league history to win back-to-back titles. Little was expected of Houston ahead of the 2023 season but new coach Ben Olsen led them to the US Open Cup earlier this year. His team are now just 180 minutes away from a historic double.

The winner of LAFC and Houston Dynamo will go on to face the Eastern Conference champions, either FC Cincinnati or Columbus Crew, in MLS Cup.

The stakes are high and there is very little to choose between LAFC and Houston going into the Western Conference final. These games are often decided by a moment of genius and both teams have plenty of players capable of delivering on the biggest stage.

Players to watch in the Western Conference final

In the aftermath of their 2022 MLS Cup triumph LAFC lost some key attacking players. Cup final hero Gareth Bale retired and centre forward Chicho Arango left for Liga MX, leaving Steve Cherundolo’s side searching for a new source of goals. They didn’t have to look far; Dénis Bouanga impressed last season but his performances have gone to the next level in 2023 and he has racked up 37 goals in all competition.

Bouanga has often been the match-winner this season, but LAFC captain Carlos Vela still has a key role to play. The Mexican is the perfect facilitator for Bouanga and boasts a wealth of top level experience that could prove crucial in the remaining games.

At the other end of the field, veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini continues to impress for Cherundolo’s side. The Italian legend is now 39 years old but he was a key part of the team’s narrow semi-final victory over Seattle Sounders. His reading of the game and win-at-all-costs attitude make LAFC a tough nut to crack in the post-season.

Denis Bouanga has been unplayable at times this season.
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Denis Bouanga has been unplayable at times this season.Gary A. VasquezUSA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

For Houston Dynamo the influence of Héctor Herrera has been key this season. The Mexican is club captain and a leader on the pitch, helping to knit together the exciting, technical team fielded by Olsen. He has been one of the players of the season in MLS and has recorded 19 assists for the Dynamo.

Alongside Herrera is Adalberto Carrasquilla, the Panamanian midfielder who has finally started to live up to his prodigious talent. Carrasquilla has been given license to roam from the right of midfield and has linked up well with Griffin Dorsey on the flank.

Houston’s top scorer this year has been Amine Bassi, another offensive-minded midfielder in Olsen’s fluid set-up. The 26-year-old only arrived in MLS this year but he has become a mainstay of the Houston side, serving as the team’s penalty taker. Bassi has scored 15 goals in all competitions for Houston, including two important playoff strikes.