MLS Cup returns to Columbus this Saturday

Chris DeVille
A limited capacity Mapfre Stadium cheers on the Crew during its Eastern Conference Final win against the New England Revolution on Sunday.

It’s hard to believe this is really happening, but: Columbus Crew SC is hosting MLS Cup this Saturday night, facing the defending champion Seattle Sounders.

Partially this turn of events is hard to believe because the Crew struggled down the stretch, costing themselves home field advantage in the playoff seedings and not looking much like championship material. Yet several upsets in the Eastern Conference bracket allowed Columbus to play its entire postseason at home, and a return to form prevented the Crew from being upset themselves.

In fact, the Crew have been so poised that they’ve only trailed for three minutes of these playoffs. In the opening round they downed the New York Red Bulls 3-2, quickly erasing an early 1-0 deficit and piling up enough goals to hold off their opponent’s late surge. The following week, they exploded for two goals in extra time versus fellow yellow soccer team Nashville SC to win their Eastern semifinal 2-0. Then, last Sunday, they prevailed 1-0 over the New England Revolution in a tense Eastern Conference Final.

That brings us to Saturday’s MLS Cup battle with Western Conference champions Seattle. The Crew secured home field for this contest by the narrowest of margins: Columbus finished the season with an average of 1.78 points per game, and Seattle averaged 1.77. Normally the seedings would be determined by a team’s final points total, but the league went by points per game because not every team played the same amount of games — because, as you may recall, there was (and is) a pandemic going on.

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That’s another factor fueling disbelief: Beyond the particulars of this showdown, it also feels impossible that a season turned upside down by COVID-19 made it all the way to the championship game. MLS only made it through two weekends of play before putting the season on hiatus in March. Four months later the league returned in unconventional fashion, with a tournament called MLS Is Back in a bubble in Orlando. Not until late August did a makeshift regular season schedule resume at teams’ home venues, in front of empty stadiums or limited crowds, sometimes rescheduled on the fly due to positive COVID tests.

Every major athletic competition in America has been dealing with similar complications. To wit, MLS Cup was supposed to be the second half of an incredible sports day in Columbus, starting with Ohio-State Michigan football at noon. The Game is canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Michigan program, but Crew vs. Sounders is full speed ahead. Though one unnamed Columbus player tested positive for the virus this week, most of the players who missed games due to positive tests in recent weeks have been cleared to return. The Crew is even letting 1,500 fans attend despite the ongoing stay at home advisory in Columbus.

As for everyone else who may be interested in watching, Fox will broadcast the match at 8 p.m. Saturday. It will be the last playoff game — and likely the last Crew game of any kind — at Mapfre, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS and the Crew’s home since 1999. The team will open its new Downtown stadium next summer, and sales reps have told season ticket members that the schedule will be back-loaded so that all the home games are at the new digs. Either way, MLS Cup looks to be the last of many momentous American soccer events at Mapfre before it is converted into the Crew’s new training complex.

This will be the Crew’s third appearance in MLS Cup and second time hosting it. In 2008, when the championship match was still played at a neutral site, a Supporters Shield-winning Columbus side traveled to Los Angeles to face the Red Bulls, prevailing 3-1 to seal the club’s greatest season to date. In 2015, despite playing in Mapfre’s friendly confines, Columbus fell 2-1 to a Portland Timbers team led by current Crew coach Caleb Porter and featuring current Black & Gold midfield linchpin Darlington Nagbe. Had Minnesota United FC held onto their 2-0 lead in Monday’s Western Conference final, they’d be bringing 2015 Crew players Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara back to Columbus with them, a twist that would have surely necessitated the meme of two Spider-Men pointing at each other.

Instead, Seattle stormed back with three goals in the final 18 minutes to beat Minnesota 3-2. The stacked Sounders roster will be a formidable challenge for the Crew, but not necessarily an insurmountable one. When the teams met in Seattle back in March, just days before MLS postponed its season, they tied 1-1. The key question will be whether a bend-but-don’t-break Columbus defense can hold off Jordan Morris, Raúl Ruidíaz, Nicolás Lodeiro and a potent Seattle attack that averaged two goals per game.

Complicating that question is the Crew’s goalkeeping situation. Starter Eloy Room, one of the players sidelined by a positive COVID test, is cleared to return for Saturday, but backup Andrew Tarbell posted a pair of shutouts in Room’s absence. Porter hasn’t tipped his hand as to whether Room or Tarbell will be in net, and fans are agonizing over whether Columbus should stick with the hot hand or hand over the gloves to an elite goalie who may not be as fresh. The best bet is that Room, whose staggering double stop against Orlando City last month was honored as the MLS Save of the Year, will reclaim his starting role — and if anything goes wrong, Crew supporters will surely be scrutinizing the choice with the same attentiveness they’ve given the bizarre throw-in situation that led to Portland’s winning goal in 2015.

Lucas Zelarayán, Gyasi Zardes, Pedro Santos and the rest of the Columbus attack will aim to ensure the Crew prevail regardless of any potential goalkeeping snafus, though really the goals could come from anywhere. Nagbe, Artur, and Jonathan Mensah have all been involved with the goal-scoring this postseason, despite none of them scoring with any regularity. On Saturday, maybe it’ll be Harrison Afful or Derrick Etienne Jr. or Josh Williams or Luis Diaz or Milton Valenzuela. Perhaps someone will come off the bench and become a Crew legend forever. This year’s team has resembled the 2008 squad in that just about everyone on the roster has stepped up with a key contribution at some point. And if they keep it up, they may well be closing out Mapfre by hoisting a trophy.