It’s tough to imagine anyone overlooking the defending MLS Cup champions, but the Saturday afternoon matchup between Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew featured two teams going in distinctly different directions. After two impressive road victories, the Sounders were looking to finish off easily the toughest stretch of the season with a third away result before what would be a well-deserved mini-break for the All-Star Game.
For the Crew, well, it’s tough to call the 2021 season anything but a disappointment. Struggling to reach the playoff line isn’t where anyone thought they’d be 20 games into their season, particularly given the additions they made in the offseason. However, championship hangover, age, form and injuries have conspired to leave the Crew on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.
That last point, however, will garner little sympathy from the Sounders or their fans, given their own struggles with health. But with the team finally on the mend, a third consecutive road result — to say nothing of a victory — was arguably a bit optimistic, given a desperate opponent trying to salvage a season.
Probably as expected, the match was a cagey affair, with neither side able to take advantage of the relative paucity of chances created. In some ways it was the final fans never got in 2020, when the Crew ran away with the match early, and the Sounders frankly never got in it. This time around, the Sounders kept it close, and even when the momentum broke the Crew’s way late, they wrested it back, and then stunned the Crew with a last-minute 1-2 punch which sends the Sounders back home with nine hard-earned road points before a flailing Timbers side visits Lumen Field on Sunday, ripe for harvesting.
Here’s five things we liked about this one:
Xavier Arreaga with the body blow
The highs and lows of Arreaga since he joined the Sounders have been well documented, from his standout performance in the 2019 Western Conference final, to some of his shakier performances in 2020. This year has been a steadier affair, which is surely how most prefer their centerbacks. Still, Arreaga’s skill set has always portended more than merely steady, given his abilities on the ball and passing skill. Against Columbus, he put together an all-around game, intercepting three passes, winning 9 of 10 duels, registering four tackles, and using his vision to pick out line-breaking passes. His most important contribution of course came late in the match, with the Sounders looking to find an equalizer. Arreaga stayed up on a corner kick, finding himself on the end of a recycled set-piece and was first to react, stabbing home the loose ball and giving the Sounders at least a share of the spoils. And then...
Will Bruin with the right hook
What is there to say about the season Will Bruin has endured? Coming into the year expecting to start as part of a two-man front line, injuries and a formational tweak has led to diminishing playing time through no real fault of his own. Toss on top of that some good old fashioned bad luck, and it’s been a struggle. Through it all, Bruin has played his part when called upon. The relief was palpable, then, when the striker curled in the winner less than two minutes after Arreaga’s equalizer. It was a well-worked goal all the way around, with Raúl Ruidíaz playing hold-up man and distributor, laying off a pass to Jimmy Medranda, who then set up Bruin for his beauty from distance.
Nicolás Lodeiro’s return to the lineup
For the first time this year, the Sounders started all three of their Designated Players. Although the anticipated fireworks didn’t materialize in this matchup for any of the trio, it was still encouraging. They have, after all, hardly even trained together, a fact Brian Schmetzer essentially acknowledged after the game. Lodeiro is likely a few games from true game fitness, though Schmetzer was surely encouraged he was able to get more than 80 minutes from his midfield talisman. So while Lodeiro may not have influenced the match in the same way he had coming off the bench against tired defenses, a few more matches with a first-choice squad will likely have the Sounders firing on all cylinders as the leaves turn.
Road to victory
Schmetzer has previously talked about the winning mentality of the Sounders on the road, but running the table this week was literally unprecedented. Much metaphorical ink has been spilled about the pedestrian home record. But to be fair, the slump coincided with a historic injury crisis that few teams would be able to weather (see: Crew, Columbus). Either way, sometimes the best cure for a home malaise is to get out of the house, clear your head and see the country. The Sounders took advantage of that in the best possible way, and now sport the top road record (7-1-2) in the league. Of course, there is no place like home, and with the next three games at Lumen, the Sounders will need to translate their road form to home if they hope to keep pace in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
Late, late show
Part of the Sounders’ disappointing home record can be attributed to dropping points from winning positions late at home this year (Atlanta, FC Dallas), so it was surely nice to turn the tables and snatch points late on the road. Bruin’s goal matched the latest game-winner of the season, with Ruidíaz’s penalty against Real Salt Lake also coming in the 89th minute. The Sounders of course have a history of late-game heroics (in fact they’ve scored 19 game-winners after the 80th minute during the Brian Schmetzer era), but as nerve-wracking as those moments can be, every championship-contending team needs a couple of them over the course of the season.