COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Seattle Sounders were the runaway favorites to win the 2020 MLS Cup final, and not just because of their stacked team, status as defending champions and the fact that the Columbus Crew lost two of their best players just two days before the final.
No, the main reason it was difficult for anyone outside of Columbus to believe the Crew capable of a storybook ending to a franchise transformation is because 2020 just hasn’t been that kind of year. Forget a year of happy endings, 2020 has largely been filled with nightmares.
So it was tough to imagine the dream scenario where a team nearly killed off by a greedy owner just two years ago, then repeatedly nearly derailed by the same virus that has paralyzed the planet, could deliver a dream finish for a fanbase fully deserving of one.
Tough to imagine until Lucas Zelarayan hit a perfect volley to beat Stefan Frei and start the dream sequence. It became a bit easier to believe when Derrick Etienne Jr. — a player left in tears after being discarded by his hometown team, the New York Red Bulls just a year ago — scored to make it 2-0.
Even then, there was a looming sense of dream that the storybook would be snatched away, much as it was taken from Minnesota United a week earlier by this same outstanding Sounders team. A comeback felt inevitable for a large part of Saturday night, and it felt like we were waiting for Major League Soccer’s version of The Mountain — the Game of Thrones villain — to turn the tide on the pesky Oberyn Martell, waiting for Nicolas Lodeiro to spark a turn around and a proverbial skull crushing.
The comeback never happened though, because this Crew team had zero doubt, and was overflowing with belief poured into them by Caleb Porter, the title-winning coach who reacted to the awful of news of losing two of his best players two days before the final by staring fate in the face and screaming “So what. We are still going to kick their butts.”
This storybook ending needed someone to make the heroes believe impossible could be possible and Porter was that somebody. A man driven to succeed by his own admitted deep-rooted hatred of failure, Porter responded to losing Darlington Nagbe, one of the most irreplaceable players in MLS, by starting 19-year-old Aidan Morris in his third professional match. It didn’t matter that Morris was the youngest MLS Cup final starter in MLS history. Porter’s belief in Morris was enough to propel the teenager into a standout showing that was key to neutralizing the ever-dangerous Lodeiro.
It might sound cheesy on some level to consider the Crew winning a title as destiny, but you need only look at how this team came together to find yourself accepting how much fate played a part.
Former Crew owner Anthony Precourt literally tried to erase the Crew from existence when he informed MLS of his plans to move the club to Austin and rebrand, and as much as his dastardly maneuvering could have killed the Crew, it wound up sparking the sequence that eventually produced a championship.
Crew supporters famously rallied together to stop Precourt’s move and generated vital support for the survival of the team, which eventually led to the club-saving purchase of the Crew by Dee and Jimmy Haslem.
The new owners invested millions into a new stadium project, and spared no expense in hiring Porter as head coach and former MLS Cup-winning Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. They also didn’t blink when the pair told them there was a franchise player available in Mexico named Lucas Zelarayan who would require a club-record transfer fee of $9 million.
If you need more evidence of destiny’s hand in the Crew title, consider that Porter almost never came to Columbus. Before joining the Crew, Porter was on the verge of signing to become head coach of the LA Galaxy — a job he long coveted — only for the deal to fall apart at the final hurdle when the sides couldn’t agree on contract length.
Instead of going to Los Angeles, Porter returned to Ohio, the same state where his head coaching began as the title-winning architect of the Akron University dynasty. After Saturday night’s MLS Cup win, Porter pointed out just how many times in his career he had tasted championship glory at Mapfre Stadium, including five years ago in the MLS Cup final with the Portland Timbers. Porter isn’t known as the sentimental type, but in that moment he couldn’t help but notice how the coincidences added up, and how it just might be okay to believe Saturday’s win was destined.
When the final whistle blew, and the Crew’s improbable title triumph was secured, Porter reacted by running around Mapfre Stadium and letting out screams as he celebrated with the 1,500 fans in attendance. Part of that was the joy of delivering the title he promised Crew fans he would deliver, but part of that outpouring was also the relief that came with emerging victorious through a series of obstacles that had to leave Porter wondering deep down if fate was, in fact, working against him and the Crew.
Such thoughts weren’t allowed in Porter’s mind before that final whistle, nor where they allowed in the Crew locker room before Saturday’s final. Only belief existed when Porter gathered his team for his final pre-game talk of the 2020 season, and convinced his team to believe it could win a match few thought they could win.
It wasn’t lost on Crew fans just what their team overcame, nor did they forget about the owner who nearly erased the team from existence. No, Precourt wasn’t at Mapfre Stadium on Saturday night, but Crew fans aimed their Precourt-inspired boos and jeers at MLS commissioner Don Garber, who Crew fans hadn’t forgotten was ready to let Precourt move the team before Crew fans stepped in to help save the day.
On Saturday, those fans were able to celebrate after the Crew convincingly vanquishing a worthy challenger in the Sounders, rewarding those fans that helped save them with a trophy that few outside of Ohio saw coming.
Then again, maybe an unpredictable finish with the Crew delivering a storybook ending and title-winning performance should have been entirely predictable in this crazy year.