As gold confetti shot into the night sky and a celebration roared around him, Stefan Frei began an internal reality check.
“The saving grace is we didn’t deserve it,” said the Sounders keeper in a somber moment Saturday night.
Frei, making his fourth MLS Cup appearance in the past five seasons with Seattle, spent more time digging balls out of the back of the net than watching his gifted teammates cause trouble for an opposing goalkeeper. In an unfortunate twist, that meant losing the league championship.
The Columbus Crew rattled the Sounders early and danced into the night with a 3-0 win at MAPFRE Stadium. It was the home side’s third straight postseason shutout.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer put it bluntly after the match: “This game was a failure.”
Columbus, known for its defense, was on the attack from the start. The Crew pressed the Sounders early to build a 2-0 lead at halftime and continued until the Cup was won, the club’s first since 2008.
“It was a daring first half on their end and it paid off,” Frei said. “We just weren’t, for some reason, ready for that. I don’t have the answer for it. I wish after we dodged a couple of bullets early on, we would’ve woken up a little bit and would’ve been able to find our way into the game. We didn’t and we got punished.”
Columbus played without key first-choice starters in midfielder Darlington Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos, who both announced Friday they had tested positive for COVID-19. The Sounders expected the Crew to have a different look than what they studied on film.
Yet, Seattle wanted to simply focus on imposing their style on Columbus, anticipating the Crew would lean on their defensive strengths. Instead the Crew created five set pieces in the opening 20 minutes.
The Sounders’ defense was disheveled. Columbus’ opening score was a beautiful, left-footed finish on the run and in the air for midfielder Lucas Zelarayan in the 25th minute. Teammate Harrison Afful had the long cross from the right side of the field to the left corner of the six-yard box to set up the play.
For the second goal, Zelarayan collected a block from Sounders defender Shane O’Neill and froze Yeimar by faking a rebound shot. Zelarayan, the high-priced Argentine who was named the league’s newcomer of the year, then passed to midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr. for the second goal. The latter was able to get his strike off before Sounders fullback Alex Roldan could recover and defend the score in the 31st minute.
A frustrated Sounders team headed into the break having been out shot 8-2 by the Crew.
“They did a really good job of their center-mid pressing up against myself and Joao (Paulo),” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “They made it really difficult to turn (to counterattack), we needed to do a better job of being more composed. …I was trying to calm it down. I went in deep for the ball and we weren’t able to do so. They certainly brought it.”
Seattle displayed more of its potent offense after the break. Schmetzer also made substitutions to put fullback Brad Smith and midfielder Gustav Svensson in the match, both of which helped establish the attack.
It didn’t matter as Crew keeper Eloy Room and his backline were there for blocks and clearances. Room had two saves overall in the match.
“In the second half, we saw a different Seattle, the Seattle that we’re used to,” Roldan said. “Unfortunately it was a little too late.”
Zelarayan capped the match with a brace in the 82nd minute. He stood at the top of the penalty box and smashed a left-foot shot past a lunging Frei. Slowing picking himself off the field, there was some thought, Frei said later, that the Sounders could rally back.
Seattle faced a two-goal deficit before scoring three goals in the final 20 minutes to defeat the Minnesota United on Monday, clinching the Western Conference championship at Lumen Field. The Loons were a less experienced side, however.
And the Sounders weren’t as healthy Saturday. Schmetzer said midfielder Nico Lodeiro suffered a calf injury, which was why he wasn’t as active as normal.
“The whole team was flat,” Schmetzer said. “There were some times early in the first half where we were able to get behind them (Columbus’ defense). Jordan (Morris) was able to get behind them and we couldn’t finish any plays.”
Crew coach Caleb Porter slotted 19-year-old Aidan Morris in for Nagbe, a 10-year MLS veteran. The championship match was the homegrown signee’s third start of his rookie season, the last in October, and first appearance in the postseason – the youngest player to do so in MLS.
But Aidan was comfortable, getting credited for the secondary assist for the play that led to Zelarayan’s opening score.
Columbus provided a historic setting for the championship played amid the coronavirus pandemic. A socially-distanced crowd of more than 1,500 attended the match, marking the third MLS Cup played in the stadium. Porter won two, leading the Portland Timbers to the 2015 title against Columbus.
The Sounders, who won the 2019 title before a Washington state record 69,274 fans at then-CenturyLink Field, failed to become just the fourth team to repeat as MLS Cup champs. The last team to repeat was the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011-12.