Here are three takeaways from MLS Cup 2020.
The Crew's flawless plan to disrupt the Sounders
Finals can sometimes be tense, tight affairs full of nerves and anxiousness as the top two teams try to find a slight advantage with the little energy they have left after a grueling season. This final was nothing like that as the Crew turned on the style and looked like a team that was pressure-free and enjoying the moment.
In due time we will try to figure out exactly why the Sounders failed to show up for this final, but in the immediate aftermath, the best thing we can do is take our hats off to the Crew because they were simply fantastic. They were missing two key starters — a development I felt made them slight underdogs — but you would never have known it. From the first minute, they took the game to Seattle and looked hellbent on signing off at MAPFRE Stadium with an emphatic win.
I don’t think many of us would have predicted such a one-sided game so it’s worth looking at a couple of factors that led to such an outcome. Firstly, the Crew kept Nico Lodeiro under wraps as well as I’ve ever seen. It’s no secret Lodeiro, more than anyone else, makes the Sounders tick, so when you look at the job Artur, and in particular Aidan Morris did on him, you can start to see why the Sounders offered very little going forward for most of this game.
Any time Lodeiro got on the ball, he was surrounded by bodies and usually forced to go backwards. This wasn’t a man-marking job, it was a collective effort that relied on being in the right position and taking away the spaces Lodeiro likes to operate in, while also cutting off the main supply to Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz.
The second thing the Crew did well was playing with a lot of pace and energy and never let Seattle get settled. There were slick passing combinations, give-and-go’s, lots of early crosses, and as soon as the ball was lost they usually hunted in packs to get it back — you could tell they were really up for this game.
The first two goals encapsulated the Crew’s mentality perfectly. Both were sparked by Aidan Morris winning possession and making a positive pass away from pressure. And both included an early cross — one that led directly to a goal and another that was only half cleared before leading to a goal. Their plan was to be on the front foot, win the ball high up the pitch and make quick forward passes right away, and also to apply pressure with early balls into the box that would force the Sounders to remain on the back foot. It worked brilliantly and was the reason they were able to race out to a two-goal lead.
Watch: Derrick Etienne doubles Crew SC's MLS Cup lead
What makes Zelarayan a special signing
This game was also a reminder of why teams continue to heavily invest in superstar — or superstar in the making — playmakers. We’ve seen teams get it wrong and the results can be disastrous, but when it goes right, as it has for the Crew with Lucas Zelarayan, then games like this one can happen. Big players win you big games — it’s a formula we’ve seen work in MLS time and again, and when the lights were brightest, Zelarayan rose to the challenge in inspirational fashion and helped lead his team to a historic victory.
Watch: Lucas Zelarayan opens the scoring in MLS Cup 2020
It’s scary to think we only saw glimpses of him at his best because his season was interrupted by injuries and a fight to get back to full fitness. He’ll only continue to get better in 2021 and that should bring a smile to all of our faces because we should all enjoy watching the special ones. One thing I am beginning to understand about the Designated Players who make it here and, the ones who don’t, is that it’s rarely determined by talent.
Talent will of course always be a part of the equation, but I feel the players who buy in to what their team is doing, the ones who care about being here, about winning, about working hard and running, about trying to understand the way this league works and embedding themselves in the culture and community they find themselves in, those are the ones who go on to excel.
Diego Valeri is probably the best recent example along with Lodeiro, and Zelarayan looks like he is of that same mould. I love the little turns, the change of pace, the vision, the passing and the teamwork he has, but what I love most is that he cares.
The Sounders MLS Cup struggles
The discourse around the Sounders will be passionate and heated in the weeks ahead. Are they a dynasty? Why did they not turn up for a final? Should Kelvin Leerdam have started? All of these questions are valid, but we can’t let them distract us from giving this team some credit. It is very hard to get to one final, let alone four in five years.
The level of consistency you need to overcome everything thrown your way and ensure you are always one of the last two teams standing cannot be overstated and the good news for Sounders fans is the core group still has at least a year or two left in them — if the club can hold on to them all. This incredible run of success they’ve enjoyed for the past few years doesn’t have to be over, but in saying that, there is an area of concern that needs to be addressed.
As mentioned, this was the club's fourth final in five years, and if we are being honest, have the Sounders ever played up to their level in any of the finals? I don’t think they have and I follow them as closely as anyone. That’s something I’d be spending the next few weeks trying to understand if I was Brian Schmetzer.
History only remembers whether you won or lost and not how you played. While that’s true, we do need to try and understand why such a talented team has yet to replicate their best form on the biggest stage. In the 2016 final, it’s well documented the Sounders failed to have a shot on target before winning in a shootout.
In 2017, Toronto were in control from start to finish and few could argue with the outcome. In 2019, for the first 57 minutes — until Leerdam’s opening goal — Toronto, sans Jozy Altidore, were the better team and looked the more likely to score. Once Seattle did score, they were fantastic for the last 30 minutes and it was maybe the best stretch they’ve had in all of the finals combined. But still, it wasn’t a 90-minute performance we know they're capable of, and have seen in other playoff games.
And of course in 2020, Columbus were the better team and the deserved winners. I’m not going to attempt to give any answers because I don’t think anyone currently has them, but it’s definitely something we need to ponder. Why have we not seen the very best of Morris, Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, Roldan and the rest of the group on the biggest stage?
I know I’m nitpicking because this is a group that has set the standard in MLS in recent seasons, but perhaps that’s exactly why I am nitpicking — they are too talented and too good to not have played up to their true level in any of the finals. I’m not Schmetzer, but if I were, that’s what would be nagging me the entire offseason.
An ode to Caleb Porter
People are going to start thinking Caleb is paying me to say nice things about him. The reality is almost everything I’ve written about him this season was proved to be true on the biggest stage. I’ve said he has an ability to convince his team they can not only win, but dominate any game, no matter how undermanned they are.
I’ve also said he builds a culture where winning is expected. We saw both of those traits on show in the final as the Crew took the game to Seattle from the opening whistle and embodied the spirit of their coach. An NCAA College Cup, two MLS Cups — his first being the first in Timbers history, his second coming in just his second season with the Crew where he hasn’t had a crazy budget or anything. Say what you want about him, just remember to include he’s a winner.
Well-earned props for Aidan Morris
When Nagbe called me and told me he wouldn’t be playing in the game, hours before the news became public, I felt sad for him as a friend, but I also felt sad for all fans of the game who wouldn’t get to see this wonderful talent on such a big stage. My third thought was to be concerned for the Crew. I really felt winning the midfield battle would now be beyond them but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Aidan Morris was exceptional for the Crew. He played his part in the goals, and marshaled Lodeiro as well as anyone I’ve seen, and his biggest accomplishment was that for 90 minutes at least, he was able to soften the blow we all felt from the Nagbe absence. Hats off to Aidan Morris.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.