Columbus Crew were crowned MLS Cup champions on Saturday night after a dominant 3-0 win over Seattle Sounders.
Caleb Porter’s men were the underdogs heading into the showpiece — the final Playoff match to be hosted at MAPFRE Stadium, Major League Soccer’s first-ever soccer-specific ground — thanks to the absences of key midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos.
However, the Crew put in a vibrant attacking performance and found themselves 2-0 up within 31 minutes thanks to goals from MLS Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan and Derrick Etienne Jr.
Seattle, contesting their fourth final in five seasons, huffed and puffed in search of a way back into the match as they sought to retain their MLS Cup title but never truly worried Columbus, who were disciplined and resolute at the back. That defensive solidity was rewarded in the final stages of the match when Zelarayan finished the job with an incredible long-range effort into Stefan Frei’s top corner.
So, with Columbus celebrating their first MLS Cup win since 2008, who were the major winners and losers from the match?
Winner: Lucas Zelarayan
Despite suffering from injury problems, Zelarayan still managed six goals and two assists in just 1,129 minutes of action during the regular season, enough to see him win the MLS Newcomer of the Year award. The question heading into the Playoffs was whether or not the Argentine playmaker could translate that form into knockout football, when those big moments get that much bigger. Despite failing to notch a goal or assist in the post-season prior to Saturday night’s game, it’s safe to say Zelarayan’s performances have been incredibly influential, pulling the strings for Porter’s side and interchanging beautifully with the likes of Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos.
With the latter absent from the final, Zelarayan’s role in the final third became even more paramount to Columbus’ chances against the reigning champions and, boy, he did he step up.
The 28-year-old fired the Crew ahead in the 25th minute, dispatching a wonderful volley from Harrison Afful’s deep cross to the back post, doing just enough to beat Sounders ‘keeper Stefan Frei. Six minutes later, Zelarayan would turn provider, sweeping the ball to his left to set Etienne Jr on his way for 2-0.
And just when you thought the game was done and Zelarayan was finished for the night, the former Tigres man put the seal on an MLS Cup performance for the ages with an incredible effort into Frei’s top corner in the final 10 minutes, taking just one touch to set himself after receiving the ball from Luis Diaz then hitting the net with unerring precision.
Two goals, one assist and a team of defending champions falling at his feet. This is a performance from Zelarayan that will go down in Columbus Crew folklore.
Loser: Stefan Frei
As much as Zelaryan’s volley to open the scoring was dispatched with beautiful technique, there’s no getting away from the fact that Frei really should have saved it. The effort was, after all, fired straight at the Swiss goalkeeper at his near post, and Frei got a very strong hand to the ball before diverting it into his own net.
Frei’s misfortune was that much more frustrating given that he had just pulled off the sort of MLS Cup goalkeeping heroics he’s become known for over the years, getting down quickly to deny a rasping Zardes effort in the 17th minute.
There was nothing Frei could have done about Columbus’ second and third goals, but that first one set the Crew on their way and a goalkeeper of his standing will come away from this final knowing he could and should have done better.
Winner: Aidan Morris
As well as Santos, many were pondering just how Columbus were going to cope without their midfield metronome, Darlington Nagbe, heading into Saturday’s final. The former USA international has added an immense amount of class and control to Porter’s side since arriving from Atlanta United at the start of the season, playing a key role in getting his teammates this far.
The crowd inside MAPFRE Stadium needn’t have worried, however, for a new hero emerged on Saturday night in the form of Aidan Morris who, at 19 years and 27 days old, became the youngest-ever starter in an MLS Cup final.
Aiden Morris' #MLSCup first half:
Tackles – 4
Touches – 22
Pass success – 87%
Shots – 1
Robbed the ball from Lodeiro in the build-up for the 1st goal & set up Diaz for what could have been a 3rd
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) December 13, 2020
The best compliment you can offer to Morris’ performance is that you barely even noticed Nagbe was missing from the Columbus midfield. The teenager made more tackles (5) than any other Black and Gold player on the night, one of which was to dispossess MLS royalty Nico Lodeiro in the build-up to the first goal.
Morris also completed more passes (32) than any other Crew player, using the ball with the sort of calm authority Nagbe has become so well-known for over the years, while he could have easily grabbed an assist when he set Diaz free on the right, only for the Costa Rican forward to fire his effort wide.
I see you @AidanZMorris 💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾😁😁😁
— Darlington Nagbe (@darlingtonnagbe) December 13, 2020
In a league which is very quickly turning into a hotbed for young talent, a new diamond may have just been unearthed in Major League Soccer’s biggest game.
Loser: Nico Lodeiro
Zelarayan vs Lodeiro felt like the ultimate playmaker battle to make this MLS Cup truly breathe but in all honesty, there was only ever one winner.
Just as the Crew’s Argentine ace was unstoppable on Saturday, Lodeiro — a Sounders legend and veteran of two previous MLS Cup wins — just could not get going.
It was the 60-time Uruguay international who was embarrassingly dispossessed by Morris in the build-up for the first Columbus goal, while Lodeiro barely managed to muster a telling through ball or defence-splitting pass from open play.
Sure, his set-piece delivery was fantastic as ever, and Lodeiro did come close to bringing Seattle back into the match when he fired an effort just wide in the 71st minute, but by his own standards, the 31-year-old simply failed to deliver.
It was only three years ago that it seemed like Columbus Crew in their current form would be no more. MLS originals and 2008 champions, club executive Anthony Precourt announced his intentions to move the Crew to Austin, Texas. Naturally, it was a decision which was met with huge opposition.
It took almost a year of fighting from fans, investors and players alike to “save the Crew”, keeping the Black and Gold right where they belong, in Columbus, Ohio. But since then, and despite a difficult 2019, this club has gone from strength to strength, with Porter building a truly wonderful MLS outfit.
Now, Columbus Crew are MLS Cup winners for the first time in 12 years, playing out their last-ever post-season game at MAPFRE Stadium in style. They’ll head into next season as defending champions and have a move to their new $300m, 20,000-seater stadium to look forward to.
None of this would be possible without the monumental effort it took from all who care about this historic club to keep it at the heart of the community it serves.
Loser: Raul Ruidiaz
Raul Ruidiaz bagged four goals and three assists during the 2019 Playoffs and after a 2020 regular season which saw him add 12 goals and three assists, had already registered two goals an assist in this post-season. In short, Ruidiaz is a Playoff specialist and one of Major League Soccer’s finest.
Much of Seattle’s hopes were pinned upon their Peruvian star on Saturday but somewhere along the line, the message that they actually needed to get the ball to Ruidiaz was lost in translation.
Ruidiaz had just 23 touches of the ball on the night, the fewest of any starting player including goalkeepers, while he was only given enough service to muster one shot on target. Time and again, Seattle played in front of Columbus, making it easy for Porter’s side to block passing lanes into Ruidiaz, suffocating him of space and service.
The 30-year-old cut an isolated and frustrated figure on Saturday. He never stopped working and kept on running until the final whistle, but you couldn’t help feeling sympathy for Ruidiaz as his teammates were completely cut adrift of him.
In a winner-takes-all final like this, you must find a way to bring your best attacking pieces into the game. Seattle Sounders failed miserably in that regard.