A crazy, unpredictable, and at times nerve-wracking 2020 Major League Soccer season was never going to have an easy ending, or a drama-free march to the crowning of a champion, but there is still reason to believe that the venue formerly known as Crew Stadium will deliver one more memorable night before closing its doors for good.
The defending champion Seattle Sounders take on the host Columbus Crew on Saturday night (8:30 p.m., FOX, UniMas, TUDN) with the label of favorites, a label earned after years of high-level success, and more recently by the stunning news that Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos would miss the final due to COVID-19.
Adversity is nothing new for this Crew team, which already overcame a COVID-19 outbreak earlier in the playoffs, though one that didn’t quite have the same impact that losing Nagbe and Santos will have.
As irreplaceable as Nagbe might be, what the Crew do still have is a deep bench and a head coach in Caleb Porter who is known for being fueled by adversity rather than being slowed by it.
The Sounders have history on their side in what will be their fourth final in five seasons, and fourth straight when they have had the services of a healthy Jordan Morris. A third MLS Cup title in five years would cement this current Sounders team’s legacy as an MLS dynasty, and one of the best teams to ever play in MLS.
The Crew are after a different kind of history, the type of history that would make a win on Saturday the perfect cap to a turnaround that saw the team go from the brink of being erased to the brink of a new era as MLS powerhouse, complete with a brand new stadium on the way in 2021.
Saturday’s final will feature two teams with plenty of similarities. Each team boasts their own dynamic South American playmaker, under-appreciated and overly-criticized U.S. Men’s National Team forward and a highly-successful and underrated American coach.
Here is a closer look at Saturday’s 2020 MLS Cup Final:
The Crew and Sounders played to a 1-1 draw on March 8 in Seattle, with a Raul Ruidiaz penalty negating a Gyasi Zardes goal
Players to Watch
The Uruguayan playmaker remains an irrepressible presence in the heart of the Sounders attack, and as he showed in the Western Conference final win against Minnesota United, you might be able to keep him under wraps for a half or more, but he won’t stop pushing and most times he will find a way to punish you and produce goals for the Sounders.
The absences of Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos will put a big dent in what the Crew like to do with the ball, but Zelarayan is tough to contain and capable of creating chances even without two of his favorite supporting cast members.
Matchup to Watch
RAUL RUIDIAZ vs. JONATHAN MENSAH
The fast and physical Ruidiaz faces an equally physical Mensah, who has the tools to contain the Peruvian striker. Unfortunately for Mensah, he will have plenty of things to worry about as tries to pick up some of the slack left by Darlington Nagbe’s absence, so he won’t really have the luxury of focusing all his attention on Ruidiaz, who will be ready to pounce the second Mensah lets up.
It is tempting to list Jordan Morris here, but let’s face it, nobody will be surprised if Morris has a monster game on Saturday night. Roldan is a bit more of a forgotten weapon for Seattle, a player who has had some excellent MLS Cup final performances before, and a player who will be in his fourth final. He stands a good chance of benefiting from Nagbe’s absence, and the vulnerabilities in the Crew midfield that absence will create.
Replacing Darlington Nagbe is impossible for the Crew, but Porter could see his absence as an opportunity to give one of his youngsters an invaluable experience in a title game. Morris is a highly-regarded young defensive midfield prospect, but while he may be an inexperienced teenager, he has the talent to deliver a breakout performance.
Caleb Porter isn’t going to dwell very long on losing Nagbe and Santos, making it clear he believes his team is ready for the next challenge in a season that has had plenty of them.
The Crew will surely lose some attacking punch, and some of their ability to hold onto the ball, but Porter knows all too well that he can’t let those absences push him into a defensive-minded approach to Saturday’s final.
“I’ll tell you this. We can’t defend for 90 minutes plus against Seattle. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do, nor can we expect to have the ball for 90 minutes,” Porter said. “There’s going to be a little bit of balance in this game. They’re going to want the ball. Of course, we’re going to need to have the ball for periods.
“They’re going to need to be organized when we have the ball. We’re going to need to be organized when they have the ball. It’s a simple game. Then the transition pops up.”
The Crew counter can be lightning fast, and Porter will have taken note of Minnesota United’s success in getting at the Sounders in transition. Crew fullbacks Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful have the attacking quality to spark quick counters, while Zelarayan is adept at sniffing out the gaps when an opponent commits too many numbers into attack.
Of course, creating chances won’t be as big a concern for the Crew as dealing with Seattle’s MLS Best XI trio of Lodeiro, Ruidiaz and Morris. Artur would seem to make sense as a shadow for Lodeiro, but giving him that assignment would limit his attacking contributions and would seem to go against Porter’s “We can’t defend for 90 minutes” mantra.
Porter’s biggest decision will be to either go with a young midfielder like Aidan Morris in Nagbe’s vacant spot, or a veteran like Fatai Alashe, who has the experience and strength to try and be physical with Lodeiro and keep him from getting comfortable.
The Sounders have a defense that can give up chances, but the challenge is striking the balance between trying to throw numbers at that defense and ensuring that you don’t leave your defense exposed to Seattle’s killer attacking trio.
What the Crew do have is a good pair of attacking fullbacks in Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful, who Porter is sure to send into the attack, particularly if Alex Roldan starts at right back for Seattle. Brian Schmetzer could deploy Cristian Roldan on the right wing to provide some quality and defensive solidity to that flank, which would then allow Schmetzer to start Gustav Svensson next to Joao Paulo in the dual defensive midfielder spots.
The Crew will do their best to get at Seattle’s fullbacks, but Jordan Morris is the great equalizer on that front because he is so good at slipping into the spaces left by marauding fullbacks, and his ability to operate on either wing makes him that much tougher to keep tabs on.
Ultimately, the Crew would have been slight underdogs even with Nagbe and Santos, but without that tandem, the Sounders are frankly going to be tough to stop. It is going to take a heroic performance in midfield from an unlikely hero in someone like Aidan Morris or Fatai Alashe, along with a superstar showing from Lucas Zelarayan.
The Sounders just need their stars to keep delivering as they have all playoffs, while the defense continues to do its part, with Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Shane O’Neill forming a very solid partnership.
The Seattle defense is sure to give up some chances, and maybe even a goal or two, but the Sounders should lift their third title in five years thanks to an attack that has too many elite weapons, along with a coach in Brian Schmetzer who is outstanding at making the adjustments needed in case his team has a slow start.