Columbus wins MLS Cup, the final stop on a journey to stay put
By Andrew Das
The celebration was the catharsis Columbus Crew fans had dreamed of since 2017, when the team’s former owner had threatened to move their team to Texas. It was the party they had pined for since 2018, when their campaign to stop him had yielded new owners and new hope. It was the dream that sustained them this year when the coronavirus played havoc with the schedule and locked them out of their stadium.
So once the party finally began, once the final whistle had blown on the Crew’s 3-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders at Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium and Columbus had won its second league title, the only sadness, it seemed, was that more Crew fans were not there to see it in person.
“When I took the job, I had a dream to take the MLS Cup to those fans over there,” said Crew coach Caleb Porter, who circled the field thanking the roughly 1,500 socially distanced supporters in attendance even before his team had been handed its silver trophy. “That’s why I was so emotional.”
Porter had denied those fans just such a celebration five years ago when, as coach of the Portland Timbers, he beat the Crew at Mapfre Stadium to win his own MLS Cup. When he was hired by the Crew in January 2019, only months after the city’s successful campaign to save the team, he pledged to give Columbus fans something to cheer again.
On Saturday, those who had been allowed inside — where they were instructed by health officials and stadium signs to stay masked and safely distant for all 90 minutes — showered Porter with thanks. The hugs will come later, when that sort of thing is safe again.
That the final of MLS’ 25th season took place at all was, in many respects, a triumph in itself.
The season had begun on Feb. 29, the earliest start in league history, and concluded with the latest MLS Cup ever played. In between was a year like no other: two weeks of matches and then a four-month hiatus because of the pandemic; a five-week summer tournament; and then weeks of wary returns to empty — or near-empty — stadiums.
Along the way, the league conducted more than 130,000 virus tests, with about 20 percent of its players recording positive results, according to a players’ union official. Dozens of games were postponed, rescheduled or simply not played at all. To get to the end of the season, the league repeatedly tweaked its health protocols, adjusted its rules and crossed its collective fingers.
Not even the final was immune, though. Columbus’ title hopes were dealt a significant blow on Friday when the team’s most important player, midfielder Darlington Nagbe, and a key member of its attack, Pedro Santos, were ruled out of the final for medical reasons. Both Nagbe and Santos later confirmed the league’s worst fear: that they, too, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“It’s a big loss; it’s a big blow,” Porter had said Friday. But he expressed confidence that his players could adjust, and his team took the game to the Sounders from the opening whistle.
The first goal came in the 25th minute: a driven cross from the right by Gyasi Zardes, and a powerful one-timed finish at the back post by Lucas Zelarayán, an Argentine midfielder signed out of Mexico’s top league last winter, and — despite his diminutive size — a menacing presence throughout the first half.
Six minutes later, it was 2-0, after Zelarayán fed an open Derrick Etienne Jr. — Santos’ replacement in the starting lineup — on the left side of the penalty area. Slipping behind his defender, Etienne coolly curled a right-footed shot around Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
Seattle tried to adjust, making two substitutions at halftime, but by then the momentum — or was it fate? — was too much to overcome. Zelarayán’s second goal, Columbus’ third, in the 82nd minute removed all doubt. The Sounders, finalists for the fourth time in five years, and seeking their second title in a row, never stood a chance.
“This was going to be our day,” Porter said. “Our time, our day and our trophy.”
Next season is scheduled to start in March. But, in a halftime interview on Saturday night, Commissioner Don Garber said the ongoing pandemic meant that he could not guarantee it.
The Crew, for now at least, are fine with waiting. The title is theirs again at last, and they are more than happy to hold on to it as long as they can.