It concluded with the Crew capping a two-year rise from the brink of extinction and a community-driven effort that helped save the organization.
New owners, a stadium groundbreaking and now the MLS Cup trophy.
Five years after losing in the final at home to Portland, Columbus won the title for the second time. Caleb Porter was the Portland coach in 2015; he was the Crew’s boss Saturday.
Lucas Zelarayan, an Argentine maestro in his first U.S. season, had two goals and an assist in one of the finest MLS Cup performances.
“I like the underdog. I’ve always liked the underdog. I’m an underdog,” said Porter, a onetime University of Akron coach who took the Columbus job before the 2019 season. “I build my teams with underdogs as well, guys that maybe aren’t the sexiest and biggest-named, highest-paid guys, although Lucas Zelarayan was the best player on the field.”
The resounding victory came before more than 1,500 spectators at Mapfre Stadium, the reduced capacity set by local authorities during a spike in coronavirus cases here and nationwide.
It marked the end of major soccer events at a 19,600-capacity venue that, when opened at the state fairgrounds in 1999, ushered in a roaring era of stadiums custom-built for soccer. Next summer, the Crew will move into modern downtown digs.
In the final for the fourth time in five years, the Sounders were seeking to become the first back-to-back champions since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011-12.
“This was going to be our day,” Porter said. “They won a couple in the past, they have the past history, but today was about the Columbus Crew. It was about us winning a trophy, it being our time and our day and our trophy.”
Despite the crowd limitation and tailgating ban, an audience clad primarily in black and gold supplied the sound and color. Depleted but demonstrative, drum-pounding members of the supporters’ groups in the stadium’s northeast corner provided home-field comforts for the Crew.
The MLS Cup was the first U.S. team championship decided in a participating market with fans since the pandemic began. The NBA, NHL, WNBA and NWSL crowned champions in preselected bubbles, and the World Series was held at a neutral location.
The absence of Nagbe and Santos figured to doom the Crew. But into the void stepped Aidan Morris, who, a month after turning 19, became the youngest starter in MLS Cup history and the first teenager to start in the final since Landon Donovan in 2001. And there was the oversize influence of Zelarayan, who more than compensated for his missing colleagues.
Columbus set the terms right away and didn’t let up, moving the ball confidently and effectively. Seattle was trying to escape trouble most of the opening half. The Crew went ahead in the 25th minute when Zelarayan lurked on the back side and latched onto Harrison Afful’s terrific cross to send a seven-yard volley under goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
Five minutes later, Zelarayan settled the ball at the top of the box and set himself up for a left-footed bid. When the Sounders closed on him, Zelarayan pushed the ball wide to the unmarked Derrick Etienne Jr. (University of Virginia) for a bending, 12-yard shot into the far corner.
No finalist had led by two goals at halftime since 2004.
Seattle had found itself in a more dire situation Monday in the Western Conference final: a two-goal deficit deep in the second half against Minnesota before winning in stoppage time.
On the road against a disciplined foe, Sounders Coach Brian Schmetzer couldn’t afford to wait to make changes. He made two at halftime and two more 15 minutes later.
Seattle turned up the heat. Shots flew within fractions of the target. Black jerseys clogged the box. It was nervy times for shivering fans. Eloy Room, a Dutch-born goalkeeper who plays for Curacao’s national team, made a spectacular save.
Zelarayan shattered the tension in the 82nd minute, lifting a 17-yarder into the top left corner. The MVP trophy — and the championship prize — had been settled.
During the postgame fête, the Crew gathered near the corner where the hardcore supporters stand.
In what has become a tradition, they sang to one another Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” except in place of “falling in love with you,” it’s “falling in love with Crew.”
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