COLUMBUS, OH – The hopes of back-to-back MLS CUP titles for Seattle fell short on Saturday as the Columbus Crew blanked the defending champs 3-0.
Coming into this match, the favorite was the Seattle Sounders. Not only were they the defending champions and coming off the high of their comeback win over Minnesota, but Columbus was missing two key pieces in Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos from their starting 11. Seattle was also the more experienced club in the match not to mention, on paper, the more talented roster.
But none of those advantages mattered.
Columbus from the start played the underdog role to perfection by having the energy that often comes from that role. Seattle looked lethargic and did not appear to have any advantage when it came to talent. The Crew were on the front foot from kickoff and dominated possession inside their attacking third and for the 2nd straight match, Seattle fell behind early.
Lucas Zelarayán received a brilliant pass from Harrison Afful that crossed the frame of net and set the midfielder up for a goal that barely got passed the body of Stefan Frei. Just like that Seattle was in an uphill battle and the climb was just going to become steeper. Etienne Jr. doubled up the Rave Green just 6 minutes later in the match and had the home team up 2-0 heading into the break.
The good news for the Sounders was that they had been down 2-0 just a few days earlier in a much later point in that match, not to mention Brian Schmetzer is know for his halftime adjustments that seem to always energize his club. But as the theme of the night continues, this was not a typical night for the Sounders.
Give credit where credit is due, Seattle did come out of the locker room with the energy that was needed to battle back into the match. The substitutions by coach Schmetzer, although some would argue were a little late, did make an immediate impact. Even with the new players on and the newfound energy, the finishing of chances was just not there. Corner after corner was awarded to Seattle and they either lifted a ball just over the crossbar or didn’t get a head on the cross at all. There were a plethora of chances to cut the lead in half early in the second half but came up short. Then came the dagger to put the match away once and for all.
Zelarayán in the 82nd minute sealed his Cup MVP performance off with a rocket from the top of the box and that was the end of any thoughts of a comeback.
· 25’ CLB – Lucas Zelarayán (Assist: Harrison Afful)
· 31’ CLB – Derrick Etienne Jr. (Assist: Lucas Zelarayán)
· 82’ CLB – Lucas Zelarayán
There were not any real redeeming qualities in this match for the Sounders. The play was well bellow the level that people have come to expect from them. The play of the attacking players that were considered the best trio in MLS was flat and lifeless. Brian Schmetzer said post-match that Nicolás Lodeiro was dealing with a hamstring injury and that is why his performance wasn’t top notch. But no excuses were made for Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz who both did not show up in the biggest game of the season. There were stretches of the match that it was easy to forget that Ruidíaz was even on the pitch. For being know as someone who shows up in big moments, he was noticeably absent.
Another glaring problem was the play of the right side of Seattle’s defense. Alex Roldan had been one of the best surprises of the 2020 season as he mad the transition to the right back position, but this was not a good outing. Several times he was caught out of position and those proved to be costly. He was not the lone problem with the defense by any means, but he stands out the most.
The substitutions were another glaring problem. When Seattle fell behind to Minnesota on Monday, It was clear that the starting 11 just weren’t jelling together and needed an injection from experienced players off the bench. Those subs were the difference in the match and resulted in a historic comeback. Now many would assume that the team that finished off MNFUC would be the one to start MLS Cup, but they would be wrong. The starters again started poorly and dug a hole and this time no reserve could get them out. Schmetzer is great at adjustments, but this was a match that they needed to put their best foot forward.
This season is one that will not be forgotten anytime soon. It was one of adjustments on the fly and empty stadiums. Somehow during a global pandemic the MLS was able to pull of not only a highly successful regular and post season but also a bubble tournament in Orlando.
Seattle again showed that they were the cream of the crop when it comes to franchises. While some teams played bellow expectations, the Sounders continued their consistency of excellence and secured yet another high seed in the Western Conference. It did not end the way they wanted, but it is hard to diminish an entire season of work with one loss. Yes, they did not perform well on the biggest stage but they again showed that they belong on the top of the league.
Next season should be a revenge tour as many of the big names for the club will be returning. The biggest piece of the puzzle that is in question right now is the expiring contract of Brian Schmetzer. Arguably the most consistent coach in all of MLS, if things go correctly and he is back at the helm next season then there would be no reason for them not to be one of the favorites to take the crown in 2021.