Here’s everything to know about Saturday night’s final between the defending champion Seattle Sounders and host Columbus Crew.
1. Seattle. The Sounders are playing in their fourth MLS Cup in five years, having beat Toronto FC in 2016 and 2019. They lost to the Reds in 2017.
2. Columbus. The Crew is 1-1 in MLS finals, winning MLS Cup 2008 over the New York Red Bulls, 3-1, in Sigi Schmid’s last game as head coach before he took over as the head coach of the expansion Sounders in 2019. In 2015, Columbus hosted MLS Cup and lost to the Portland Timbers, 2-1. The Timbers were coached by the Crew’s current head coach, Caleb Porter.
3. Matchups. Seattle and Columbus faced each other on March 7, their last game before the long layoff due to COVID-19 shutdown. The game ended in a 1-1 tie with the top scorers for both teams, the Crew’s Gyasi Zardes and Sounders’ Raul Ruidiaz, scoring the goals. Their only meeting in a final came in 2010 when the Sounders beat the Crew, 2-1, to become the first team in 27 years to successfully defend its U.S. Open Cup title.
3. Brian Schmetzer. Schmetzer, who association with the Sounders dates back to 1980 when he signed as a 17-year-old player for the NASL team, took over as head coach for Schmid in the middle of the 2016 season and immediately led Seattle to its first MLS title, becoming the first coach to win a league title after taking over following the start of the season. With Monday’s 3-2 win over Minnesota United, the 58-year-old Schmetzer is 4-for-4 in MLS Western Conference finals with the highest winning percentage of any coach in MLS playoff history (.800 with a 15-3-2 record).
4. Caleb Porter. Porter will get a chance to win his second MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium. If Columbus wins, he will join Bruce Arena (D.C. United 1996-97, LA Galaxy 2011-12, 2014) and Sigi Schmid (LA Galaxy 2002, Columbus 2008) as the only coaches to win MLS Cup with two different teams.
5. Nagbe and Santos out. The pandemic has impacted the 2020 season from almost beginning to end, forcing a four-month break that ended with the MLS is Back Tournament and hitting many clubs hard.
Two teams — FC Dallas and Nashville SC — were withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament due to COVID-19 outbreaks, and LAFC was missing four young stars for its round one match at Seattle after they contracted the virus while in national team duty in November. On a media call this week, Bob Foose, the MLSPA executive director, said 20 percent of MLS players have had COVID-19.
Columbus has had 10 players test positive in the playoffs and will be without starters Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos for Saturday’s final.
Nagbe is arguably MLS’s best central midfielder at controlling a game’s tempo. The Crew was MLS’s best team before he was injured after the Crew’s 10th game. In his absence, Fatih Alashe was used the most often besides Artur in the Crew’s 4-2-3-1 system. The Crew has several options to replace Santos: Youness Mokhtar, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Emmanuel Boateng. (Etienne started the playoff opener before being sidelined with COVID.)
6. Svensson back in. The Sounders have survived their own COVID issues impacting Peruvian Raul Ruidiaz and Swede Gustav Svensson. Ruidiaz contracted the virus while in South America on national team duty in October but was labeled a “recovered player” after his return, allowing to return to the Sounders in November without quarantining. After testing positive following his return from international duty in November, Svensson missed the first two playoff games but came off the bench to score in the winner in Monday’s epic comeback win over Minnesota United.
7. Ohio curfew. Columbus, the Ohio capital, is located in Franklin County, which is averaging 72.8 weekly cases per 100,000, above the national average of 62.6. Ohio is currently under a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew though the Crew was given a variance to host MLS Cup.
8. No Ohio State-Michigan football game. Ohio State-Michigan football game, one of the biggest rivalries in college sports, was scheduled to be played Saturday in Columbus — noon kickoff — but it was canceled because of an increase in COVID-19 cases over the past week within the Wolverines’ program. The game had been played every year since 1918. Its cancellation is a big blow to FOX, the MLS Cup broadcaster. The Ohio State-Michigan game was the network’s most-watched college football regular-season game the last three years.
9. Champions. The Sounders have six players who started on both their 2016 and 2019 championship team and will be playing for their third MLS Cup title: Stefan Frei, Roman Torres, Joevin Jones, Cristian Roldan, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. (All but Torres is in contention to start on Saturday.) Six other Sounders who played in the 2019 final against Toronto FC are still with the team. On the Crew, only Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy 2014) and Nagbe (Portland 2015 and Atlanta United 2018) have played on MLS Cup-winning teams.
10. Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian has already established himself as one of the most feared strikers in MLS history. He has scored nine goals and added six assists in nine games. His goal–a-game average in the postseason is easily the best of any player with nine or more playoff goals. (Carlos Ruiz is second with 0.84 goals a game.)
11. Nicholas Lodeiro. Lodeiro’s assist on Svensson’s winning goal against Minnesota United gave him assists in seven consecutive postseason matches. His 10 career postseason assists are the most among active MLS players.
12. Lucas Zelarayan. The Argentine only started 12 of 23 regular-season games but still played well enough to be named the 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year. His arrival is one of the reasons for the Crew’s turnaround after it dropped to 10th place — its lowest placement in its 25 MLS seasons — with a 10-16-8 record in 2019. Zelarayan’s assist on Artur’s winning goal in the 1-0 win over New England in the Eastern Conference final gave him four on the Crew’s six playoff goals.
13. Berhalter boys. Gregg Berhalter departed as the Crew’s sporting director and head coach following the 2018 season to become the U.S. national team coach. But his influence on the Crew is still felt. Seven of the 11 Crew starters against the Revs were signed by Berhalter.
14. Seattle bench. The four substitutions Schmetzer made changed the Western Conference final. Minnesota United was leading, 2-0, when he brought on Kevin Leerdam and Brad Smith at the outside backs, then Will Bruin, as a second forward, and finally, Svensson.They offered plenty of experience off the bench. Leerdam, Smith and Svensson all started when Seattle won MLS Cup 2019; Leerdam, Smith and Bruin started in MLS Cup 2017. (Both Leerdam and Svensson might return to the starting lineup on Saturday.)
15. Homegrowns. Only one of the 33 players who have played in the playoffs for two teams is a Homegrown player it produced: Seattle’s Jordan Morris, who starred at Stanford before turning pro in 2016. (Three other players — Seattle’s Shane O’Neill, Zardes and Etienne — are Homegrown players developed at other clubs.) The Sounders have four Homegrown teenagers — Josh Atencio, Ethan Dobbelaere, Danny Leyva and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez — but they played only a combined 111 minutes in 2020. Midfielders Aidan Morris (Indiana) and Sebastian Berhalter (North Carolina), Gregg’s son, were signed by the Crew as Homegrown players after their freshman seasons in college and both got chances to start during Nagbe’s mid-season absence.
16. Xavier Arreaga. The Ecuadoran national team defender will likely miss MLS Cup. He is in Seattle with his wife, who is expecting to give birth to their first child. The second-year defender played in MLS Cup 2019 but has not gotten on the field in 2020 playoffs.
17. Jair Marrufo. Marrufo will be the MLS Cup referee for the third time, having also worked MLS Cup 2006 between Houston and New England and MLS Cup 2015 in Columbus between the Crew and Timbers. He was a referee during the 2018 World Cup and refereed the 2018 Club World Cup final.
18. Kathryn Nesbitt. Nesbitt, who will join Corey Parker as the final’s two assistant referees, is the first woman to officiate a league championship match in a men’s professional league in any sport in North America. She was named 2020 MLS Assistant Referee of the Year and was also on the line for the MLS is Back Tournament final.
19. Farewell. Saturday’s game will be the final MLS game at Mapfre Stadium. The Crew opened the stadium in 1999, making it MLS’s first soccer-specific stadium, built by Lamar Hunt at a cost of $28.5 million. It will move into a new stadium in the city’s Arena District in 2021. The latest price tag for the new stadium being funded by the new Crew owners, the Haslam and Edwards families: $313.9 million.
20. Fans. The Crew will again allow 1,500 supporters into the stadium, plus family and guests of the team. The 2015 final drew 21,747 fans.
Photos: Mike Fiechtner/Sounders FC Communications, Jane Gershovich/Sounders FC Communications, Daniel Herlensky/Crew SC Communications