SET THE TONE
Comebacks are great and rallying from a two-goal deficit in the final 15 minutes of a match is even more thrilling. But the 3-2 Western Conference championship win against Minnesota is the second consecutive match where Seattle took its time in getting on the board. Defender Shane O’Neill’s ultimate game-winner against FC Dallas in the semifinals happened in the 49th minute.
The Loons and Dallas featured young rosters without much playoff experience. The Columbus Crew have a savvy squad that excels in defending and, although it may be necessary because of the lockdown defense, Seattle could create an advantage with an early goal to get the Crew thinking about scoring more.
Seattle also has better odds when scoring in the first half, going 6-0-1 in those matches during the regular season. The record plummeted to 0-3-2 when trailing at the break. Toss in the Rave Green’s 3-3-3 record on the road this season and it’s clear a boost from a first-half goal likely is key.
Columbus suffered a massive setback when it learned star midfielder Darlington Nagbe and left winger Pedro Santos weren’t “medically cleared to play” in the MLS Cup final. Nagbe announced via Twitter on Friday that he tested positive for COVID-19.
Nagbe is regarded as one of the best midfielders in the league because of the way he effortlessly connects the Crew’s play between the backfield and attacking third. Columbus was 3-4-2 without him in the lineup during the regular season.
Santos is equally vital as the club’s second-leading scorer.
One of the ways Columbus and Seattle mirror each other is in their depth. The Sounders brought three MLS Cup champions off the bench in defenders Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson and Brad Smith to defeat Minnesota on Monday.
The Crew do have players with championship experience but the club’s only other MLS Cup title was in 2008, so that expertise isn’t with Columbus. Instead the Sounders will have to watch out for possible replacements like league veterans Fatai Alashe, Emanual Boateng, and Derrick Etienne Jr. who can easily become difference makers.
Leerdam (hamstring) and Svensson (COVID-19) could return to the starting lineup since they’ve regained their fitness after long absences. But there’s still forward Will Bruin and defenders Roman Torres and Jordy Delem for Columbus to prepare for if Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer calls on either for a late-game spark. Bruin’s goal in the 75th minute against Minnesota ignited the comeback.
Although Bruin missed Seattle’s 2019 MLS Cup win due to a season-ending knee injury, he started five matches during the club’s 2017 run to the MLS Cup. Bruin recorded two goals and two assists during that postseason and was the Sounders’ second-leading scorer overall.
There’s a Cascadia rivalry undercurrent in this MLS Cup. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has history with Columbus Crew coach Caleb Porter when the latter headed the Portland Timbers and Schmetzer was an assistant under Sigi Schmid. The relationship is cordial now, Schmetzer moving on from using losses and photos of Porter smirking at the Sounders bench in delight as motivation.
Knowing how each other likes to play and what they might do tactically as a counter will be its own drama Saturday. Schmetzer appears to have the advantage with a mostly healthy squad. Center back Xavier Arreaga is the only late scratch, staying home in Seattle to witness the birth of his first child. Arreaga hasn’t logged a minute in the postseason, however.
Porter has managed COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the postseason. While Nagbe and Santos are significant losses, he’s equally capable of squeezing the most out of his roster. Porter has also won a title at MAPFRE Stadium, leading the Timbers to the 2015 MLS Cup win against the Crew.