This is the year that “resilience” became so much more than a common sports cliché, an interview crutch or a buzz word. In MLS, like in other sports, this has been the year of the four-month pandemic pause, of the bubble, of endless isolation and coronavirus testing. There’s been uncertainty, personal inconvenience and financial hardship. This year, resilience wasn’t just a quality a prospective champion might want to have in its arsenal. It was a foundational requirement.
Fortunately for the Columbus Crew, resilience is welded onto the club’s DNA.
“This is a very hungry team I'm coaching,” Crew coach Caleb Porter said ahead of Saturday night’s MLS Cup final. “Never been more proud of a team—their resiliency, the way they've come together, how much they give, the fact that they just keep rolling with the punches.”
Columbus rolled with those punches and then rolled the Seattle Sounders, 3-0, to win the Crew’s second league championship while denying the visitors their claim to a dynasty. This was the final big game at historic Mapfre Stadium, and it belonged to the energetic Crew from the outset. It was a team that had been hit hard by the coronavirus throughout the MLS Cup playoffs and then again during the days leading to the final, when two key players, assist leader Pedro Santos and massively influential midfield metronome Darlington Nagbe, were ruled out after positive tests.
The Sounders (14-6-6), seeking their third MLS Cup crown in five seasons, were healthy and flying high after Monday’s miracle semifinal comeback, and Columbus (16-6-5) was relegated to underdog status on home soil. The Crew would have to stem that rave green tide absent two of their most pivotal players.
But this is an organization that has faced higher hurdles. Three years ago, oblivion was imminent as then-owner Anthony Precourt sought to abandon MLS’s first city and move his team to Austin. At the time, it appeared the league had given up on the market, which had its issues but never had enjoyed the benefit of a local owner.
A powerful and organic grassroots movement resulted—Save The Crew—which inspired city and state officials to threaten litigation while local fans, businesses and media made the case for soccer in central Ohio. That brought sympathy and bought time, and in late 2018, Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Crew team doctor Pete Edwards purchased the team from Precourt. Plans for a stunning new stadium in the city’s Arena District followed shortly thereafter.
A handful of players, like captain Jonathan Mensah, defenders Harrison Afful and Josh Williams, Santos and Héctor Jiménez are still around from those agonizing days in late 2017. Mensah spoke this week about the championship “payback” he and his teammates owed the fans and city in exchange for their efforts.
To that end, they’ve now been joined by a front office and coaching staff, led by former MLS champions in GM Tim Bezbatchenko and Porter, as well as players, who were attracted to Columbus by the Haslams’ commitment and cash. Last winter, the Crew shelled out a club record $7 million transfer free for Argentine playmaker Lucas Zelarayán. He helped guide Columbus to the fourth-best record during this challenging regular season, and he opened and then finished the scoring on Saturday night.
"I believe a championship is won in the day-to-day process–how you play, the mentality that you have. Our guys became winners this year,” Porter said following the final. “You need to have a special fiber, and you need to fight and work and have a strong mentality, a winning mentality, every single day. I believe that's the difference.
"So when we have adversity, and I say this all the time, you can be PTSD, or you can be PTG, and PTG is 'post traumatic growth.' I actually believe that you grow more than ever in adversity," he continued. "I’ve grown more than ever this year. My team and my players have grown more than ever. So when we have adversity like this week, we use it the right way. We handle it the right way."
Absent Nagbe and Santos, Columbus had every reason to start the game cautiously. They did the opposite. Unlike the Sounders, the Crew had been hammered by the coronavirus during the playoffs, losing 10 different players to positive tests at one point during their postseason run. Seven tested positive prior to the Eastern Conference final against the New England Revolution, yet Columbus survived. While Nagbe and Santos were forced out before Saturday, left wing Derrick Etienne and goalkeeper Eloy Room returned. They’d both play key roles.
In Nagbe’s place was Columbus homegrown Aidan Morris, a 19-year-old midfielder who became the youngest MLS Cup final starter in the league’s 25-year history. Where one star was forced aside, another was born. Morris was fantastic during the Crew’s dominant first half, showing several of the savvy and adroit midfield moves that boosted Nagbe to two previous league titles. Morris was involved in the genesis of both of the host’s first-half goals.
In the 25th minute, Columbus took a deserved lead. The Crew had been playing fast and direct, gunning for Seattle when the ball turned over and doing well to force Seattle wide and away from playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro when it had possession. The Sounders were a step slow to everything, and Morris did well to start the scoring sequence with a quick turn, and then set it in motion with a pass to Afful on the right flank. The Ghanaian sent a bold, early cross to the far post, where Zelarayán hit a firm first-time shot through goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
Six minutes later, Morris again found Afful on the right, although this time his early cross was headed clear. The ball fell for Zelarayán, however, and he drew the Seattle defense before sliding a pass to his left toward Etienne, who curled a perfect shot inside the right post.
"We came out. We pressed. We didn’t sit back. But when we had to be in a low block, we were organized. This team has been prepared for every phase, and you saw that today. We went a little more direct. That's what the game called for. I thought that gave them a lot of problems," Porter said of the Crew's suffocating start. "We knew we weren’t going to have much of the ball without Darlington and Pedro, so we decided to play a little bit more direct and we decided to play in transition."
The Sounders were down, but they’d proven in Monday’s conference final against Minnesota that a two-goal deficit didn’t mean they were out. The surge was coming. Where United had folded, however, the Crew stood firm, confidently trading chances with the reigning champs during a wide-open second half, all before Zelarayán settled matters with an 82nd-minute, 18-yard blast to the upper-left corner.
Columbus left no doubt as the final whistle blew, and it didn’t appear it had any at the opening whistle either. Absences, interruptions and adversity were old hat for this team, both this season and culturally. That was enough to overwhelm Seattle's championship pedigree.
"We were not going to let history and the past, as much as I have the utmost respect for Seattle Sounders ... We were not going to let history and the past determine today," Porter said. "This was going to be our year. It was going to be our day. It was going to be our trophy, and that was the message before the game."