Columbus Crew SC will host the MLS Cup final at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday against the reigning champion Seattle Sounders FC. It has been the weirdest year in MLS history, but this match-up feels not weird at all. If, at any point in the season (even Columbus's listless October) you'd suggested these are the two sides that would meet in the final, most MLS watchers would've nodded and said "yeah, I could see that. That makes sense."
So consider this a dose of normalcy. Now let's take a look at what we think will happen:
Columbus Crew SC vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Saturday, December 12 (8:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info)
What Columbus will do:
The Crew, more than perhaps any other team in the league, love to control the tempo. They do so for a lot of reasons — one being if you have Darlington Nagbe on your team, you should probably aim toward controlling the tempo since slowing the game down is what he does best — but there are two primary ones: Controlling the tempo allows playmaker Lucas Zelarayan to be just an attacker. He doesn't have to cover every blade of grass in order to impose his influence in large part because the deep-lying midfielders (Nagbe and Artur) and the fullbacks are spread out, pinging the ball side-to-side and creating openings in the opposing defensive structure. He finds one of those pockets, gets on the ball and goes to work. Controlling the tempo is a defensive ploy by the Crew, who use the ball so well to limit opposing transition opportunities. Nobody faced fewer transition attacks per 90 in the regular season than Columbus did, as per Second Spectrum tracking data, and while that number has slipped somewhat in the playoffs, almost all of that slippage comes down to having faced the Red Bulls — who fabricate a disproportionate amount of transition opportunities against everyone thanks to their pressing. This is all a fancy way of saying the Crew get their No. 10 on the ball in good spots, and then make it hard for you to counterattack against them if a turnover — which they commit few of — should actually occur. They are also very good at shutting down any sort of opportunity once they reach the final third, as so:
This is just gorgeous soccer pic.twitter.com/iDmnjqjI5Z— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) December 6, 2020
They do all of this out of a 4-2-3-1 in which both wingers tend to stay fairly wide, and both fullbacks push up. The thing to note about how the fullbacks push up, though — and it's related to the "controlling the tempo" bit — is they do so not to get to the endline and hit pullbacks, but instead to, again, help dictate tempo. Afful on one side and Milton Valenzuela on the other basically become ad hoc deep-lying midfielders in the types of passes they hit, and their ability to hit those passes allows Zelarayan and the wingers to do more work finding good spots off the ball and less work trying to beat defenders once they're on it.
While all this is happening in the engine room and on the flanks, Gyasi Zardes is occupying both center backs with a ton of high-intensity runs and outright sprints, which generate a huge amount of high quality chances. I'm just going to regurgitate my analysis from the Eastern Conference final:
None of it works without a center forward as clever and precise in both the timing of his runs and how he sets up defenders as Gyasi Zardes. He had a goal and an assist in the Conference Semifinal win over Nashville, but this flashing run between the center backs and across the face of goal was actually my favorite moment of the game:
He absolutely pantsed Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman there. Here he is doing the same to the Union. Here he is, last year, just ruining Bastian Schweinsteiger. Maikel van der Werff is still trying to find him after this run.
What Zardes does off the ball both sets up and occupies both center backs, which forces them to stay tighter to the central channel. That means the fullbacks often have to rush out to meet Columbus's wingers — likely Pedro Santos and Luis Diaz in this one — with the knowledge that help might come later or not at all. Throw in an overlapping fullback, and now you've got to choose whether to bring your own wingers back and get shelled up, or bring a central midfielder out wide in support and risk letting Zelarayan get some space in Zone 14.
Defensively the Crew can press, which they showed against the Revs. But in general they do that in order to blunt transition opportunities and slow opposing builds down, and not necessarily to force high turnovers.
Friday, 12/11 UPDATE: Well, with Nagbe and Sanos ruled out for the game, that changes a lot of things for the Crew. I expect them to turn into a scrappier team through the middle, one that tries to ugly up the game and doesn't worry much about controlling the tempo. Instead they'll try to control space -- or deny space, more precisely -- and frustrate Seattle into low-percentage plays that could turn into Columbus counterattacking opportunities.
This is fine. It's what Minnesota and Dallas both did to Seattle, and the Sounders had to work real damn hard to beat each of those teams. And in Zelarayan the Crew have a No. 10 who can do the "open up the field" distribution work that made Bebelo Reynoso so effective in the first half against the Sounders.
Zelarayan will just have to drop deeper than he usually does to get on the ball, most likely.
What Seattle will do: For half a decade now I've typed some version of "Nicolas Lodeiro is the system" in these playoff previews and that has not changed in 2020.
Technically speaking, Lodeiro and Zelarayan both play the same position: the No. 10, or (since we're talking about South Americans here) the enganche. These are the genius playmakers who run the show, and you'd be right to argue which is better, which is more fun, etc. etc. etc. But practically speaking, they are very different players.
What it comes down to is how much they're on the ball and where. Zelarayan, as mentioned, is a creature of the final third. Per Second Spectrum, Zelarayan gets 47.1 touches per 90, which is just the 49th percentile, while Lodeiro gets 80.7 touches per 90, which is the 99th percentile. Zelarayan is in the 97th percentile of final third touches per 90, with 25.4 (that means 54% of his total touches come in the final third — an absurd number for a midfielder), while Lodeiro is again in the 99th percentile with 34.5 final third touches per 90.
The numbers paint the picture, right? Zelarayan is a specialist, while Lodeiro does literally everything that could possibly be asked of any No. 10.
LOOK ON HIS WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR!!!
He somehow gets wide open in the heart of the Minnesota defense, sprays a perfect diagonal into Jordan Morris's run to create a transition opportunity, sprints downfield to get in a perfect spot to win a second ball, plays immediately to a scoring threat at the top of the box, hustles to press a Minnesota defender and win the ball back, which leads to a shot in the box.
The Sounders are a great and talented team in so many ways. Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are among the very best in the league at their respective spots, as are Stefan Frei, Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan (who's hit another level in these playoffs, and is as devastating off the ball in his own way for Seattle as Zardes is for Columbus).
But Lodeiro's a freak. He doesn't just do everything; he does everything at an absurdly high level.
That includes his set piece delivery, by the way, which is some of the best in the league. You probably don't need a reminder of that after what happened the past two games.
The one downside of Lodeiro's propensity for going everywhere and doing everything is when he drops really deep, that can cause a disconnect between the Sounders midfield and attack. But Roldan's done an exceptional job of recognizing those moments this postseason and releasing upwards into the gap, shifting from a 6-ish 8 role into an 8-ish 10 role on the fly. It's been fun to watch.
Also note with Lodeiro, Joao Paulo and Roldan so comfortable doing so much of the distribution, Seattle's fullbacks are able to push all the way into the attack in a more aggressive way than Columbus's do:
That's all Second Spectrum tracking data. The important distinctions are between the final third and final sixth (which is basically just around the box), as well as pure overlapping runs. Seattle's fullbacks attack at pace; it's much less about dictating pace and tempo with them. That, like everything else for the Sounders, is Lodeiro's job.
X-Factor No. 1: Columbus are a pretty big team and Zelarayan's set piece delivery is delicious, but they're really kind of meh on attacking restarts (though they're very good defensively).
After the past two games, I should not have to tell you how good Seattle are on attacking set pieces.
X-Factor No.2: Seattle have, in Will Bruin, Gustav Svensson, Brad Smith and even Kelvin Leerdam (though I do expect him to start), a ton of difference-makers to bring in off the bench and change either the team's shape or line of confrontation.
Columbus just don't. Derrick Etienne, Jr. is the only one who'd check that box, and if he's medically cleared to play on Saturday, it will be almost a month since he's taken the field. And given Santos's absence, he might have to start anyway.
There are all kinds of great reasons to pick Columbus in this one. When they're fully healthy
, as they're expected to be for this weekend, they've clearly been one of the best teams in the league. They have, in Zelarayan, a final third magician, and in Zardes a completely reliable center forward who has previously scored in MLS Cup (back in 2014). Their defense doesn't make many mistakes. If Eloy Room plays, they have a match-winner in goal. And, of course, they're at home.
EDIT: Obviously they are not fully healthy this weekend. Expect them to be much more of a sit-and-counter team without Nagbe and Santos.
But at this point I've decided it's stupid to pick against the Sounders in the playoffs. Even on the road, even against a legitimately great team, I am not going to do it. Not after what we saw last year, and not after what we saw earlier this week.
Sounders win 2-1. Lodeiro is the MVP.