MLS Cup preview
MLS Cup Preview: Shorthanded Columbus have uphill challenge vs. Seattle
December 11, 2020
THE 25th AND MOST challenging season in the history of the league will conclude on Saturday night when the Columbus Crew host the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. Seattle Sounders the defending champions and are looking for their third title in five years and walk into this one with a decisive advantage after COVID-19, the defining theme of 2020, ruled out the Crew’s Darlington Nagbe and Sergio Santos.
Prior to this news, it seemed as if Columbus had a good chance in this one as Nagbe could have been part of the equation that would keep Nicolas Lodeiro from seeing the ball as regularly as he does. But without Nagbe, Columbus is going to have to change its approach. Without Santos, the team will lose one of its key pieces in attacking out wide.
Here are some thoughts on this game:
Seattle will control possession
In the big win over Minnesota in the Western Conference final, Nicholas Lodeiro touched the ball 106 times over 90 minutes. That is the norm for him as he always seems to get on the ball a lot and wear other teams down. Without Nagbe, it is a sucker’s bet for Columbus to try to control the possession game. Columbus will need to sit back and absorb pressure, be defensively compact, and then try to hit Seattle on the counter.
As Matt Doyle has mentioned, Seattle aren’t great against a bunker team and their approach is to hit repeated crosses when opponents bunker. So Columbus might have accidentally stumble into a way of forcing Seattle into a tough situation.
Seattle has a lot of offensive weapons. In addition to Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are great forwards in this league that know how to win. But Seattle has shown time and time again that it has other pieces – whether it be Will Bruin or Gustav Svensson. Then when you think they are all contained, Shane O’Neill can score a set piece goal.
But for Seattle, everything will flow through Lodeiro.
“I'll give you one analogy,” Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer said. “What you guys might think is pressing, let's just say he has 10 forward passes. The 10 forward passes, maybe eight of them don't result in a shot on goal or a goal or something that works. To me, and to Nico, that's okay. If you don't try those pass, if you don't try and get Jordan Morris in on goal, then you never know if the goal is going to get scored.”
Aidan Morris might play for Nagbe
Nagbe has missed time this year for Columbus and when he has, U.S. U-20 defensive midfielder Aidan Morris has sometimes earned the start. Morris has done well in these situations but this is entirely a different level. Seattle, come playoff time, can raises its game into a gear most teams never reach in the regular season.
If Morris starts in this one, it will be a special opportunity for the homegrown player - and on where he can really make a name for himself ahead of the U-20 cycle’s restart. Morris can win a physical battle, play solid defense, and hit nice passes – but he can’t replicate Nagbe. He can’t be asked to stay with Lodeiro. It’s going to take a team effort for the Crew to play defense and Porter has the unenviable task of either reshaping the team’s defensive structure last minute or hoping that the reserves can fill in and allow Columbus to play is original way.
“On a professional level, my job is to, no matter what happens, find a way to win, get my group prepared to win under any circumstances,” Porter said. “I've done this a long time. I've had a lot of things pop up. You have to be mentally strong. You have to keep your group mentally strong, as well. It's why I work on the mentality and the resiliency and the unity of a team every single day, because I know in football there's a lot of adversity, there's a lot of things that pop up, there's a lot of ups and downs, there's a lot of disappointments.”
Does Columbus have pieces to counter?
The loss of Santos leaves the Crew short-handed on the wings and its ability to take from wide positions is reduced. How Crew manager Caleb Porter adjusts will be interesting as Derek Etienne remains a logical choice but hasn’t played in over a month. A lot of what the Crew does is dependent on Lucas Zelarayan but the key for him to be successful is to get him further up the field.
Zelarayan is not like Nico Lodeiro who can outwork just about everyone on the field, play both defense and offense while touching the ball 100 times or so. Lodeiro always seems to be able to get himself the ball. In theory, for Seattle, Joao Paulo is the connector between defense and offense, but Lodeiro can also do it himself.
Zelarayan will need to either drift back and play a deeper role, or other Crew midfielders like Morris or Artur will need get him the ball in a manner similar to Nagbe.
Porter addressed the media and expressed his desire to have Columbus play the same way it always has without Nagbe.
“We have a system, we have a game model,” Porter said. “Our system and our way of playing overall shouldn't change with one or two guys out, otherwise it's probably not a very good game model.”
Columbus has had Zelarayan and Nagbe out for extended stretches this season but the problem is that Seattle is just on a completely different level in the playoffs compared with regular season games. While Porter has put on a brave face in front of the setbacks, tactical adjustments might be necessary.
If Zelarayan drifts further back in the midfield, what is his outlet? Well, if the game turns into a track meet, Zardes is valuable. He’s a center forward but, as we saw against Nashville in extratime in the Crew’s first playoff game, he can be very useful if the game turns into a track meet.
To win this game, the Crew are going to need someone out of the ordinary to step up – like Aiden Morris or Derrick Etienne.
Seattle deserve to be the favorites even if this game featured a 100% healthy Columbus team. The absences of Santos and Nagbe will hurt, but this will still be a good game. It will be an uglier and less attractive game as Columbus won’t be able to do exactly what it wants. While it plans on playing the same way, the Crew might resort to clogging and fouling. But that should be effective in keeping the game close.
Seattle, however, has too much talent and I think they win it 2-1 and continue to make its case as one of the best teams in the history of this league, Lodeiro as one of the best players in league history, Jordan Morris as one of the best American players in league history, and Brian Schmetzer as one of the best coaches in league history.
People should appreciate this Seattle team as one of the best club teams in the history of American soccer.