In the nine seasons where the higher seed has hosted MLS Cup, the road team has never been the betting favorite. That changes tonight when the Seattle Sounders will visit Mapfre Stadium to take on the Columbus Crew. The Sounders bring a high-flying offense that is at full strength, while the Crew are a possession-oriented team that will be missing some key components. This promises to be an interesting match and these are some of the things that will determine the winner:
How will Crew cope with absences?
There’s no way around it, the Crew were dealt a tough hand when Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos weren’t medically cleared to play. Nagbe is their most important midfielder in possession and Santos is their second-leading scorer and a key playmaker. The Sounders can’t be lulled into thinking that makes their lives any easier. The Crew went a perfectly respectable 3-3-2 in matches Nagbe missed this year and they have plenty of danger men even without Santos. Despite Caleb Porter’s insistence that the Crew will continue to do what they always do, they’ll inevitably take a more defensive posture and the Sounders will need to be prepared to handle that.
Where do Crew find offense?
One of those danger men that the Crew still have is Lucas Zelarayan, who was one of the most expensive transfers in league history at the start of the year. As good as Gyasi Zardes is, he needs service and can be shut down with sound defending. Zelarayan, on the other hand, is a bit more apt to create scoring from nothing. Although Zelarayan’s overall numbers aren’t particularly impressive — he finished with 6 goals and 2 assists — he has had no shortage of highlight reel moments and is clearly someone who can change the game on a dime. Zelarayan exceeded his xG by nearly four goals, which was fourth most in the league and the second most on a per-minute basis. One way of looking at that is he’s perfectly capable of scoring without creating a ton of chances or even getting into particularly dangerous spots.
Will Sounders switch things up?
The Sounders got to MLS Cup with some big names on the bench. In fact, during the entirety of their playoff run, their starting backline was completely different from the starters in all four of their playoff games a year ago despite three of those defenders still being on the roster. That’s not entirely by design, but Brian Schmetzer has so far left his lineup unchanged from one game to the next. Now might be the time to move away from the hot and and just go with the best lineup. That probably means Gustav Svensson moving back into the midfield with Joevin Jones moving to the bench and potentially replacing Alex Roldan with Kelvin Leerdam. These two moves should help the Sounders control the tempo and keep the Crew pinned in.
Can the Sounders stay patient?
If there’s been one tactic that has flummoxed the Sounders this year, it’s how to break a bunker? We’ve seen them do this effectively, breaking down the walls with early goals against teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps and bombarding teams with shots in the box like they did late against Minnesota United. But they’ve also struggled at times, most notably against the Portland Timbers, when they start settling for early crosses. The Sounders need to find a way to get players like Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro into space and running toward goal. If not that, then they need to remain patient and not expose themselves to counters.
Who cements their legacy?
Brian Schmetzer has a chance to become just the second head coach to win MLS Cup three times, while Caleb Porter can become just the third coach to win with two different teams. You can rest assured that Porter will again find himself mentioned among the top American coaches if he pulls this off. The ship may have sailed on Schmetzer ever getting his proper credit, but it’s worth noting that a win would tie him with Bruce Arena for the most professional soccer titles (5) in U.S. history. That he’ll have done that with one team across two divisions — he won two USL titles with the Sounders — is even more impressive in its own way.