The Columbus Crew may have entered MLS Cup shorthanded, but they did not play like it.
Columbus rode the heroics of Lucas Zelarayan to a 3-0 win over the reigning champion Seattle Sounders Saturday night at Mapfre Stadium, where a select group of fans who had a hand in keeping the club in the city were able to relish in their greatest achievement in 12 years.
Zelarayan's 25th-minute goal opened the scoring, before Derrick Etienne's goal six minutes later padded the advantage. Zelarayan delivered a late dagger in the 82nd minute, with the Crew winning the second title in club history and their first since beating the New York Red Bulls in 2008.
In that match, Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto became the first player in league history to be involved in three goals in an MLS final. In Saturday's, Zelarayan, another Argentine playmaker and the most expensive player in club history, became the second.
Columbus was forced to play without Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, two core stars and midfield cogs who tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Etienne and Aidan Morris took their places in the lineup, with the latter the youngest starter in MLS Cup history.
Both sides started brightly, but it was Columbus that had the game's first true scoring chance, with Stefan Frei impressively stopping Gyasi Zardes's chance from inside the box after a corner kick.
Frei has made a habit of coming up big on the MLS Cup stage, and he very nearly kept out Columbus's opener.
Harrison Afful curled a cross to the far post from the right, and Lucas Zelarayan met it with a well-hit volley, which Frei was able to get a hand on but couldn't keep out.
Zelarayan played provider in the 31st minute, with the Seattle defense collapsing on him as he received the ball at the top of the box. He spotted Etienne open to his left, and that's where the Haiti international curled a right-footed chance by Frei and in to make it 2-0.
For Zelarayan, the club's record signing last winter for a reported fee of $7 million, the match continued his blazing run of form through the playoffs, where he finished with two goals and five assists.
Seattle, which made two halftime substitutes in an attempt to change the mojo, very nearly broke through to pull one back at the start of the second half. Afful almost turned in a catastrophic own goal, only to hit the side-netting and concede a corner. Nothing came of it for the Sounders, who came back on Minnesota United in dramatic fashion in the Western Conference final with the help of their set-piece proficiency.
The Sounders continued to surge a minute later, with Cristian Roldan testing Eloy Room from distance, only for the Curacao international goalkeeper to make the diving stop. Three minutes later, Roldan came close again, heading over the bar after another Seattle corner kick.
Seattle's pressure continued in the 70th minute, with Nicolas Lodeiro narrowly missing a chance to make it 2-1. After an intricate set of ball movement in the final third, Jordan Morris laid it off for Lodeiro at the top of the box, and he tried to effectively pass it inside the right post, only to put his opportunity inches to the right of it.
Seattle missed wide of the left post three minutes later. Gustav Svensson, who became the game-winning hero vs. Minnesota with a header off a corner kick, nearly did it again, but his glancing chance went wide left.
Room was called into action in the 80th minute, with Morris looping a header that was earmarked to tuck under the bar, only for the Columbus goalkeeper to get a hand on it and swat it off the frame.
All of that pressure from Seattle failed to register a goal, and Columbus broke the Sounders' back in the 82nd minute through its man of the match. Luis Diaz played a square ball to Zelarayan, who blasted home the insurance goal to make it 3-0.
Seattle continued to threaten, but couldn't break through, with their reign over the league ending, and their effort to win a third MLS Cup title in five years coming up short.