There are gut punches, and then there’s losing Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos two days before MLS Cup. Next man up and all that, but those are blows that leave you gasping. They’re holes the Crew can’t fill completely.
Both players announced on Friday via Twitter that they’d tested positive for COVID-19. I wish it wasn’t so, for the players, the Columbus Crew and, frankly, our society, but these are the unprecedented times we’re living through. You can do everything right and still be swept up by this pandemic. None of us have been able to avoid loss completely this year. The only positive is that neither players’ family is affected and they’re recovering. Life is bigger than the game.
Still, the game matters. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t. This championship will come in difficult times, and it’ll be cherished in a different way by both fanbases. Don’t take this the wrong way, Seattle Sounders supporters, but my heart is with the Crew in this historic 25th MLS Cup.
Those supporters saved their club through sheer stubbornness and determination. Those supporters watched their team battle their way to the brink of historic redemption only for two of their best players to be denied a career-defining moment. Those supporters deserved an occasion like this, a playoff goodbye to an all-time soccer venue, without ifs, ands or buts.
Those supporters deserve a championship. Should Columbus win, Nagbe and Santos won’t be there to celebrate with the teammates they endured all this hardship with, either. This year, godforsaken 2020, is cruel like that.
Now, that’s not to say the Sounders haven’t sacrificed. That’s not to say they haven’t faced unprecedented hardship. That’s not to say they haven’t experienced the anxiety that seems to define our day-to-day lives during this pandemic. Seattle have, and they found a way to do what they were expected to do. They’re playing a fourth MLS Cup final in five seasons. They deserve an exclamation point and a championship, too.
The Sounders might just be a dynasty, but should they win tonight, unlike their opponents, they’ll do it with a full complement of players. They won’t have any hands tied behind their back. If they weren’t already, they’ll be heavy favorites, expected to get the job done without the threat of the top possession player this league has ever seen and a Designated Player attacker that’s already scored two goals in three games during these playoffs and started all but one game this season for Caleb Porter.
The Crew are not helpless, of course. Porter has options. They got past Nashville and the Revs without starters who were not medically cleared to play. Younes Mokhtar can come inside and combine, create and be a goal threat on that left flank. Fatai Alashe has been a starter in this league, and while Sebastian Berhalter and Aiden Morris are unseasoned, they’ve shown flashes of quality this season.
It goes without saying, however, that they’re not Nagbe and Mokhtar is not Santos. The Crew may have a system and a style of play that extends up and down the roster, but it won’t be the same. They’ll have to adapt. They’ll have to fill shoes bigger than their own. We saw what happened in the early fall when Porter didn’t have his full cadre of stars. They fell off.
That may not happen this time, with the adrenaline of a final to rachet everyone up a notch, but odds will be against the Crew.
Of course, that’s nothing new for Columbus, and that’s why my heart is with them. They’ve faced adversity that would have sunk other clubs. They’ve seen the very existence of their team flash before their eyes. They’ve been down, with little hope of victory. They found a way to survive, to win.
And should they win tonight, it’ll be soccer poetry: an MLS original club saved by their own supporters, overcoming a year of overwhelming adversity only to take a body blow at the last second, counted out yet again.