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Five keys for the Crew to win the MLS Cup

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If the Black & Gold want to get past the defending champions, these are good places to start.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders are the last barrier standing between the Columbus Crew and the MLS Cup trophy. To secure the team’s second-ever title, the Black & Gold will have to defeat the defending champions on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium. But what’s the best way to get the job done against them?

It won’t be easy, I believe we can all agree on that. Seattle has been a perennial MLS Cup contender, having never missed the playoffs since the team entered Major League Soccer in 2009 and appeared in four of the last finals, winning two of them.

The Sounders have some of the best players in MLS, including 2020’s MVP award finalists Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, and a well-establish playing style that has been refined during the five-year tenure of head coach Brian Schmetzer.

But, as with any sports team, the Sounders have their own vulnerabilities and imperfections. If the Crew manages to minimize the damages created from its opponent’s strengths and find ways to explore its weaknesses, Columbus will be in a good spot to lift the trophy at MAPFRE Stadium.

Here are five keys for the Black & Gold to accomplish that:

Containing the Lodeiro-Ruidiaz-Morris trio

Anyone paying minimal attention to MLS for the last three years knows that what makes the Sounders a formidable team is the power of their offensive trio of Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris. The three are not only talented players but typically produce in big moments, so stopping them will be an absolute must for the Crew.

Lodeiro is the Sounders’ heartbeat. The Uruguayan is extremely talented and is involved in everything his team does on offense, registering a league-high 69.7 passes per game average. He’ll get on the ball no matter what, so the key when defending him is closing the passing lanes as well as possible and forcing him to play laterally or back when possible instead of trying to deny him possession.

Ruidiaz is a ruthless striker, who produces in bunches during crunch time. He’s not a physical forward, but is very fast and doesn’t need more than one touch to score, which will require great coordination and smart positioning from Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams to keep him away from dangerous spots as much as possible.

Morris is a dangerous player and his matchup with Harrison Afful is one the Crew should be concerned about. The U.S. Men’s National Team winger has the pace to beat Columbus’ fullback off the dribble and also the physicality to outmuscle him, so it’s likely the Ghanaian will need help from one of the center backs or midfielders to deal with him in certain moments of the match.

Defending well on set pieces

When their stars don’t produce, the Sounders have a very solid alternative path to score goals: set pieces. The defending champions scored three of their last four goals this way and in what’s expected to be a close, tight MLS Cup Final, that could very well be the difference.

One interesting aspect of the Sounders’ set piece strategy is that it’s not built upon the presence of phenomenal headers as is the case with most teams who use that weapon. In the team’s presumed starting lineup, only center backs Yemar Gomez Andrade and Shane O’Neill could be qualified as above-average threats in the air.

Seattle is successful on set pieces in most part due to the great delivery, typically coming from Lodeiro or fellow midfielder Joao Paulo. Avoiding unnecessary fouls around the penalty box is a great start, but the Crew will need to be very smart to defend when the opponents have an opportunity to cross the ball into their box, which will happen at some point in Saturday’s final.

Finding Zelarayan in good spots

Moving from defense to offense, it’s been quite obvious that Lucas Zelarayan’s production has been a key factor in the Crew’s attacking efforts this season. The Argentinean midfielder will need to be heavily involved in the game for the Black & Gold to be able to unlock Seattle’s defense and score goals.

There is, however, a good chance the Designated Player finds the space he needs to operate around the Sounders’ penalty box and that has a lot to do with the way they play. Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan are two of the best ball-playing center midfielders in MLS, but neither of them is a natural No. 6, which oftentimes grants opposing attacking midfielders some space in the center of the field. Zelarayan needs to explore that.

That could change if Sounders’ head coach Brian Schmetzer slides Gustav Svensson, who scored the game-winning goal against Minnesota United in the Western Conference Final, back in the starting lineup for the MLS Cup Final. That, however, would most likely take away from Seattle’s offense.

Attacking from the wings

Even if Zelarayan is heavily involved on offense, the Crew players most likely to hurt Seattle are Pedro Santos and Luis Diaz. If one area of the Sounders lineup doesn’t stand out as much as the rest of the team, it is the fullback position, making of the wide areas of the field a potential path for success for Columbus.

On the left, Santos can explore the fact that Alex Roldan, who has been playing as the team’s right back, is originally a midfielder. Longtime starter Kelvin Leerdam could return to the team for the MLS Cup Final, but he has played only 42 minutes in the last month and could lack match rhythm if he does, providing an advantage to the Portuguese.

On the right, Diaz will have an intense battle with Nouhou Tolo. The Cameroonian is arguably having his best MLS season to date but is still a mistake-prone player and oftentimes remains high up in the field after a forward run. Diaz will need to remain patient and accept some early frustration if things don’t start well because sooner or later, he’ll most likely have a chance to beat Nouhou.

Remaining focused for the entire 90 minutes

This one shouldn’t even be necessary to bring up, especially in a final, but it’s just impossible not mentioning after the unbelievable comeback the Sounders made in the Western Conference Final, turning around what many already considered a lost match in 15 minutes.

Seattle is one of the best teams in the league and part of their success can be explained by their experience and winning mentality. The Crew will need to be ready to play with intensity during all 90 minutes (and potentially extra-time) and to remain focused during the entire match. Taking one minute off could be too much against the defending champions and cost too much for a Columbus team in huge need of a trophy.