The Seattle Sounders hoped that Saturday’s MLS Cup final in Columbus would herald their arrival as a dynastic force in league history by winning consecutive league championships and a third title in five years.
Instead, a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of the Columbus Crew served as a curt ending to a disrupted season.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer elected to use the same starting lineup for the fourth consecutive match, including the club’s dramatic comeback in the Western Conference finals Monday.
The decision included playing Alex Roldan — who prior to 2020 played his entire career as a midfielder — at right back over Kelvin Leerdam. Joevin Jones started on the right wing, pushing Alex’s older brother, Cristian, to start in the holding midfield over Monday’s hero, Gustav Svensson.
From the opening whistle, the presumptive favorites were unable to match the hosts’ intensity. Columbus pressed all over the pitch, winning the ball and driving relentlessly toward Seattle’s goal.
🔥 Another one for @ColumbusCrewSC as they take the 2-0 lead in #MLSCup pic.twitter.com/ZOM8UURKzs
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2020
The Crew scored 25 minutes in, when Harrison Afful swung a cross to the left post for Lucas Zelarayan, whose first-touch shot ricocheted off keeper Stefan Frei and trickled into the net.
Six minutes later, Columbus scored again. Zelarayan trapped the ball out of the air and drew defensive pressure, before laying it off to Derrick Etienne at the left post. Alex Roldan rushed to cover the open man, but Etienne curled a shot across the face of goal to beat a diving Frei.
Off the crossbar from Jordan Morris! pic.twitter.com/c5DPyjTXCE
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2020
“They couldn’t find their rhythm in the game,” Schmetzer said. “Going one goal down was
OK, but going two goals down was a dagger.”
Both goals saw Roldan out of position, though he was left without defensive cover after pressing out on the wing on the first goal, and had to sprint 30 yards back when he realized Zelarayan was unmarked.
A half-hour in, the Sounders had been outshot 6-1 and outdueled 25-14.
The second-half introduction of Svensson, Leerdam and Brad Smith — all of whom started in the club’s 2019 MLS Cup triumph — brought something of a spark to Seattle’s efforts to find a goal, but the club was too deep in the hole and failed to generate any meaningful action in the final third.
THE DAGGER! @ColumbusCrewSC makes it 3-0 in #MLSCup pic.twitter.com/Afg28ddOAD
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2020
Zelarayan added the final insult in the 82nd minute, smashing a rising shot into the upper left corner to render the final minutes nothing more than a formality. When referee Jair Marrufo blew the final whistle, Seattle had three shots on goal, with the best effort having been swatted away from the upper corner by Columbus keeper Eloy Room after a
Jordan Morris header in the 80th minute.
Notably, Columbus managed the rout despite missing two key members due to COVID-19 withdrawals: Assist leader Pedro Santos and midfield tactician Darlington Nagbe.
Schmetzer refused to saddle the blame on a single player:
“The whole team was flat. I absolutely think that this game was a failure. This individual game was not a good performance by our club. It’s not up to the standard that we set for ourselves. It’s my job that the players are prepared and that they have the tools to be successful.
It’s not a good way to end the season, But I would say that the team came through some adversity and made another final back-to-back, which is difficult to do in a league like MLS.”
Schmetzer defended his choice of starting lineup, citing a nagging hamstring injury for Leerdam and Svensson’s recent return to team activities after recovering from COVID-19.
“I don’t second-guess myself,” he said. “I try to learn. After the Minnesota game, you put those guys on and you win 3-2, and you’re the greatest coach ever. You put these guys on and you lose 3-0 in an MLS Cup final and everyone’s questioning your lineup.
“Our goal is to keep learning. When you think you know it all, you stop trying to get better. After 2017 (a loss to Toronto), we learned some things. After last year, we learned some things. I’ll learn some things from this year and then we’ll try and push the group forward.”
Ironically, the off-season always feels the longest for the team that comes up short in the big game. As Seattle turns its attention to the 2021 season, they have reason to be confident that the core of their team will return. Only two major contributors’ contracts are set to expire: Svensson and Brazilian midfielder João Paolo, who is on loan from Brazilian side Botafogo.
The murkier question surrounds Schmetzer. Out of contract at the end of the year, the Seattle native has been publicly confident that a new deal will get done, but has acknowledged that he feels capable of replicating his success elsewhere.
Schmetzer’s words are a pointed reminder that the Sounders have reached four MLS Cup finals in five years under his guidance, winning two. For all its offensive prowess, though, Seattle has often failed to score on the league’s highest stage, having been shutout in three of those appearances.
The Sounders have managed the rare sporting feat of being perennially successful for more than a decade. Still, the club has always claimed to set its sights on being great, not just good. In a title-obsessed world, Saturday’s loss will serve as a headstone for the season of a good team, not an eternal monument to the legacy of a great one.
It was like the field was tilted down hill for Columbus the entire game.
You can dissect, analyze, second-guess and otherwise offer up multiple explanations for the outcome when simply the best team won. You just tip your hat to the Crew and call them Daddy.
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The Sounders got a miracle to get there…..nothing left in the tank.
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This match reminded me of the rematch with Toronto where they started aggressively. I bet Columbus took note of that and decided to do the same, especially since they were down two starters including their top playmaker in Darlington Nagbe.
No reason for COL to hold back. They had the extra day and home field, and the Sounders spent a lot of emotional energy in the MIN win. Had no edge left.
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Bad time for the Sounders’ worst game of the year, but in a pandemic year where the league somehow managed to pull off a reasonable regular season (unlike college football), getting to the final is nothing to sneeze at.
For neutrals, it’s a very good story for Columbus. A few years ago, this MLS original franchise was set to move to Austin, but locals stepped in to buy the team and keep them in town, and add a new downtown stadium to boot. Now they get to celebrate a second championship. Well done.
Columbus is a great story for MLS, and deserving of many accolades. Even without two starters, they were the better team. Impressive.
The better team won the MLS Cup. Ain’t no shame in being 2nd best – especially in a trying year like 2020.
True. MLS had many COVID disruptions, including with the hosts. But coach Caleb Porter created the right mental edge to overcome. Tremendous feat worthy of salute. Second-best is a worthy feat here.
I love Joevin Jones’ ability but his fingerprints were all over the 0-2 deficit. He was dispossessed on multiple 1v1 opportunities and then failed to track back on D (a soccer mortal sin), leading to Roldan scrambling to guard 2 players on the far post. One instance resulted in a goal when Roldan marked up and Joevin watched the opposing forward press up toward goal. Roldan then hauled ass to get back and pointed at Jones to catch his mark but Jones actually shooed Roldan as he pursued futilely. It’s the goal that had Roldan and Frie yelling at Jones (he was easily 45 yards away from where he should have been marking). That lack of effort is the type that allows underdogs to beat favorites. If you watch the replay you’ll see how often Jones was near midfield as the Crew pressed to our goal. Over 45 minutes those are the types of mistakes that even bad teams will take advantage of.
That’s part of why he was pulled at the half, and part of why the Sounders let him go Tuesday.