A profoundly strange year of soccer culminates on Saturday when the Seattle Sounders meet the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup Final. It will be the second meeting between the two teams, and it’s strangely fitting that the last game of the season will be against the same side as the last game before the season was halted by the pandemic. If you cast your mind back to that game in March, the two teams were evenly matched as the game ended 1-1 courtesy of goals by Gyasi Zardes and Raúl Ruidíaz. That evenness would seem to suggest that we’re in for a real contest in the final.
The two starting lineups from March 7 are likely more similar to the ones both teams will put out on Saturday than they will be different — Columbus are likely to have only one or two changes from that game, depending on the status of goalkeeper Eloy Room. That doesn’t do justice to the growth and change that both teams have gone through as they’ve made their respective runs, where Brian Schmetzer has continued to instill a mentality in the club that fosters belief in each other and a willingness to work for each other, while Caleb Porter has seemingly moved into the later stages of his transformation of the Crew into a talented side that dominates opponents. What exactly does that mean for Columbus? Let’s get into it.
What they do well
Columbus do plenty of things well — they’ve got a roster full of players capable of breaking a game open with a shot or a pass — but there’s probably nothing they do better than stopping their opponents from scoring goals. Caleb Porter’s side is built from the back first, and through 26 games including the playoffs they’ve only given up 23 goals. They give up quite a few shots — during the regular season Columbus’ opponents averaged 11.6 shots per game to their own 10.5, while the Sounders took 12.6 shots to their opponents’ 9.5 shots — but a remarkable number of those shots are met by a defender before they can even trouble the ‘keeper. This is due to the Crew’s organization and commitment to holding their shape, but the star in the back is centerback Jonathan Mensah.
Mensah has racked up twice as many blocked shots as anyone else on the team and has posted almost 100 more clearances than the next highest Columbus player during the regular season. Mensah isn’t just a key player in the team’s defensive scheme, though, he’s also crucial to how they play in possession, leading the team in touches and touches/90 during the regular season, and is in the top 5 on the team in passes/90 and pass completion %. It turns out it’s helpful to have an absolute rock as your club’s foundation.
What they don’t do well
It’s hard to tell whether a weakness is a failing on the part of a team or a conscious decision to give up a particular area of the field or aspect of the game. In the case of Columbus, it seems fair to suggest that the apparent weaknesses are more a matter of tailoring a style of play to the strengths of the team. The midfield trio of Artur, Darlington Nagbe, and Lucas Zelarayán isn’t the stoutest defensive presence, although they’re capable of making it difficult to play through the middle. The team creates pressure, but doesn’t exactly press. The Crew want the ball, but they’re not necessarily going to take it from you, although they do rack up recoveries and win second balls. Again, those appear to be structural choices rather than true weaknesses.
The one real potential weakness might be that they don’t really put teams away. Columbus scored 42 goals through 26 regular season and playoff games, and won by multiple goals in seven of those games. Two of those came in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, and two more came against teams that didn’t make the expanded Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Compare that to Seattle’s 10 wins by multiple goal margins, with six against playoff teams, and even if Columbus take a lead the Sounders won’t be out of the game.
How they can beat Seattle
Have you heard of Gyasi Zardes? No, not the meme of a player whose first touch looks like his boots got covered in Flubber, the star striker with 83 total goals in 6 MLS seasons who’s racked up 14 goals and 5 assists through the regular season and playoffs in 2020. He scored Columbus’ lone goal when they traveled to Seattle at the start of the year, and if Columbus win on Saturday it’s highly likely that it’s going to be because he’s on the score sheet again. His awareness and off-ball movement are devastating for most CBs, he’s a clinical finisher, and his touch and ability with the ball at his feet is better than the image of him that you hold in your mind.
Seattle’s CBs will have to be engaged all game, because losing Zardes for even a moment is enough for him to get in position to score. That’s what allowed him to finish off both Red Bull New York and Nashville SC.
It should be noted that it’s not Zelarayan feeding Zardes on either of those goals, and the Crew’s new 10 is absolutely capable of creating opportunities for him.
How Seattle can beat them
I mentioned at the top that the lineups for this game would likely be pretty similar to the lineups from the March 7 game. The biggest difference from that game is the presence of Nico Lodeiro. There may be other changes — Joevin Jones started at left back and will probably be replaced by Nouhou, while Cristian Roldan played the 10 and Miguel Ibarra started on the right in Lodeiro’s absence — but those changes pale in comparison to Lodeiro’s return to the focal point of Seattle’s attack. He’s the best player on the team, and his absence early in the season was clear both because he wasn’t there doing the work of 10 men, but because other players had to shift and adjust to make up for the hole he left behind. More often than not when the attack is clicking it’s flowing through him.
The addition of João Paulo to the Sounders midfield has freed up Lodeiro to play farther forward and have even more influence, while also allowing him to direct his teammates when they press or try to win the ball back. Lodeiro is the team’s talisman, he’s as likely as anyone to score or create a goal, and he’s shown repeatedly in these playoffs that he can put the team on his back and carry them to the mountain top when the burden is too much for his companions. Seattle can beat Columbus because Nico Lodeiro simply won’t abide a world where anything else happens.