We saw two well-matched teams separated by a brilliant team goal, which proved to be all the Columbus Crew would need to beat the New England Revolution and punch their ticket to MLS Cup. Here are my takeaways:
Zelarayan and Crew's midfield trio prove the difference
I had a strong vested interest in the Eastern Conference Final. For starters, two of my really good friends were facing each other — Darlington Nagbe suiting up for the Crew and Teal Bunbury for the Revolution. I sent a message to the group chat declaring myself a “Columbus Revolution” fan for the day.
They were my teammates at the University of Akron, as was Pablo Moreira — an assistant coach for the Crew — and of course my head coach during my college career was Caleb Porter, the Crew’s head coach. The ties go deeper as another Crew assistant Ezra Hendrickson was an assistant with the Sounders during my playing days and New England midfielder Scott Caldwell is also an Akron alum. I had a strong interest in this game but no bias.
In the end, it played out as I expected — the Crew were largely in control while New England offered constant reminders of their attacking threat any time Carles Gil lifted his head and looked for a pass in behind. He had two exquisite balls in this game — one for Adam Buksa in the first half that the forward should have done better with, and one off a quick free kick in the second held that Tommy McNamara should have also done better with.
Still, we didn’t see enough from New England as an attacking threat and the game turned on its head in the second half once Lucas Zelarayan’s influence grew. The Argentine playmaker was phenomenal as the game dragged on. Despite his obvious quality, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Zelarayan consistently, mainly due to injuries and then having to play catchup in the fitness department. But when he is on, as he was today from minute 45 onwards, he can be as good as anyone.
Everything good the Crew did came through him as he popped up all over the pitch picking up balls and turn making plays. He had a wonderful ball into Gyasi Zardes that led to a great chance and then moments later he produced a sharp turn before unleashing a ferocious strike that cannoned off the post. In between those two moments, he danced around an opponent yet again before whipping a sublime cross to Jonathan Mensah who laid on the assist for Artur’s winning goal. Zelarayan’s fingerprints were all over every Crew move and dynamic play. He outplayed Gil down the stretch and today, that was enough to tilt the game in Columbus’s favor.
Watch: Artur scores winner for Columbus
As the game dragged on, I kept asking myself why Zelarayan was always so open? I decided to take a closer look and then realized that the Crew did two things very well that allowed him to receive so many balls. First, he was their first look whenever they regained possession. And unless he was marked very tightly by two players, they didn’t hesitate to ping the ball into him. That level of trust, of knowing your playmaker can receive pretty much any ball and make something of it, was a key reason why he was able to get on the ball before New England were often able to organize and get set defensively.
The second thing the Crew did well was to ensure that one of Nagbe and Artur was always open. Gustavo Bou had an impossible task of trying to prevent the pass into both of them. If he went toward one, the other would take up a good angle and become the receiver. Time and again, the Crew’s two holding mids got the ball with acres of space that allowed them to lift their heads, drive toward goal, engage opposing defenders and then find an open Zelarayan once those defenders were out of position. The fact that Pedro Santos often comes and plays inside, also ensured that neither Caldwell nor Matt Polster could overly commit to Nagbe or Artur — they had to keep an eye on the inverted Santos. Tactically, the Crew got it spot on.
What next for the Revs?
There’s no question that Bruce Arena has his team on the right track. The vibe around them is very different to what it was in the months before he took over. They overcame two really strong teams in Philadelphia and Orlando to deservedly take their place in the Eastern Conference Final. With that said, I see clear room for improvement and Bruce Arena said as much in some of his post-match comments.
Buksa is by no means a bad player, and maybe given more time he will become a double-digit scorer and a constant goal threat. I do think they could do with a pure out and out goal scorer though. Gil is going to give you all the playmaking you need — the guy is brilliant — Bou will add to that with his qualities as well. They need someone who will consistently finish off all the plays they create.
Watch: Buksa hits the post for New England
If this team had a Raul Ruidiaz type forward — someone who needs only eight touches a game to score two goals — Gil would have 15 assists a season. Those type of strikers don’t grow on trees so it’s easier said than done, and could be wishful thinking on my part, but Bruce Arena should be backed to go find just that type of player.
I would also like to see a dominant holding mid. At times I felt their back four was under too much pressure and had to rely on the recovery pace of Andrew Farrell and Tajon Buchanan to bail them out over and over. If there was a midfielder who offered protection by putting out fires before they ever got close to Matt Turner's goal, not only would they concede fewer chances, they’d also force more transition opportunities which would allow them to get extra passes into Bou and Gil.
It was a really good year for this team but any time you get this close to success, it whets your appetite for more success. As currently constructed, this is far as this team can go — to take the next step and be an MLS Cup capable team, a couple of strategic additions will be needed.
Looking ahead to MLS Cup
A few weeks ago I sent Caleb Porter a text that said: "Would love to see a Crew vs Sounders final." His reply? “Would be a great game.” He’s held up his end of the bargain and Seattle have the chance to make my wish come true in about 24 hours. It won’t be easy though because this Minnesota team is no joke and still have a big say on what happens next.
I’ve talked highly about the Crew all season long. Even when they went through their blip, I said it was down to injuries to key players more than any deeper-lying issues. They are well built, well-coached, well-motivated and full of match winners. They’re not a spectacular team that wows you in the ways that Atlanta in 2018, and LAFC in 2019, would do. But what they are, is extremely strong down the spine of the team, and capable of winning beautifully or ugly when needed. They are deserved finalists in my eyes and with this final being a home game, they would be slight favorites no matter who they face seeing as they’ve won 12 of 13 home games.
Watch: Columbus lift Eastern Conference trophy
A Crew vs Loons final would be a game where the Crew will have most of the ball and will try to probe and break down the Loons while needing to be wary of the counter-attack led by Bebelo Reynoso and Kevin Molino. Minnesota could win by scoring first and then finding moments to exploit the space the Crew would have to leave at the back in order to chase the game, but I do think it’d be a game that Columbus would dictate and control. Finding a way to slow down Zelarayan would fall on Osvaldo Alonso — who despite his age and the miles on his legs — can turn back the clock for 90 minutes and do a job on anyone.
A Crew vs Sounders game would be very appealing for the neutral viewer because there are so many questions I’d love to see the answer to. Nagbe and Artur are great holding mids and do most of their good work with the ball so how would they cope having to chase the never-stagnant Nico Lodeiro all over the pitch? Would they be disciplined enough to do that, and if they were, would they still have the same energy on offense that they normally have? The physical battle between Yeimar and Zardes would also be very fascinating to watch as would the two attacking full backs in Nouhou and Afful going head to head in trying to force the other one to stay home more.
I’ve said the Sounders are the best team in the West many times, and have said the same for the Crew in the East. It’s the final I’d want to see but I respect Minnesota too much to think that it’s guaranteed to be the final we do see.
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.