MLS Cup 2020 is here. In a year full of ups and downs, twists and turns, jubilation and despair, the Columbus Crew is in MLS Cup 2020. After advancing past the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Black & Gold cemented their place in MLS’s championship game for only the third time in their history.
Who else would the Crew face but the perennial MLS superpower, the Seattle Sounders? After a miraculous, inconceivable comeback in the Western Conference Final, Seattle reached the MLS Cup for the fourth time in the last five years. Led by superstars Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidíaz, as well as Jordan Morris and Christian Roldan, Seattle is looking to cement its dynasty and win its third MLS Cup.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, the Crew announced on Thursday night that the team will be without stars Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos for the MLS Cup. In the most dramatic way possible, the year 2020 has dealt a final blow to the Black & Gold. However, hope remains as there are still plenty of ways for the Crew to take advantage of the Sounders’s subtle weakness and reach immortality in Columbus.
Let’s take a look at what to expect Saturday night.
Seattle Sounders at a Glance:
Record: 11-6-5, 39 points
League Form: W-W-W-W-D
Leading Scorer: Raúl Ruidíaz (14)
Assist Leader: Nicolás Lodeiro (8)
Player to Watch: Raúl Ruidíaz
Ruidíaz has become a household name in MLS in the past couple of years and for good reason. The Peruvian still features regularly for his home country and is often at the center of the Sounders’ attack.
Playing as a central striker, Ruidíaz often finds himself on the finishing end of Seattle’s attacks and he does so with venom. Ruidíaz tallied 42 goals in 66 appearances for the Sounders since joining the club in July 2018. He is no doubt often the main topic of discussion for his opponents before the match.
Despite this fact, Ruidíaz is adept at losing his mark and burying the ball in the back of the net. The forward is often able to slip away from those defending him when the likes of Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro are causing problems for the opposition. When Ruidíaz finds himself open, he only needs a half second before dispatching the ball into the opponent’s goal.
Ruidíaz’s first touch in the box is what separates him from other MLS strikers. The quality of his first touch allows him to get away from defenders closing in on him, thus enabling him to get off high percentage shots from high percentage areas of the field. There is no doubt that Ruidíaz will again be at the center of the Black & Gold’s scouting report ahead of the MLS Cup Final, and the Crew’s ability or inability to contain him may well make the difference in this match.
How the Seattle Sounders play:
The Sounders are led by Brian Schmetzer who finds himself in the midst of the best run in club history. Schmetzer took over in August of 2016 and immediately led Seattle to its first MLS Cup win against Toronto FC later that same year. He followed that with another MLS Cup trophy last year and an additional finals appearance in 2017 (all against Toronto).
Seattle features a multitude of attacking options, stellar defense and a goalkeeper that has made them one of the most prolific sides in MLS in recent years. The main feature of the Sounders is their attacking corps. Featuring the likes of Ruidíaz, Lodeiro and a pair of U.S. National Team members in Christian Roldan and Morris, Seattle has one of the most potent attacks in the league.
The Sounders typically try to maintain an expansive shape when in possession, much like Columbus. Seattle likes to make subtle changes to help the team create and attack different spaces. The most notable of these is the movement of Morris. Despite being a strong wide player, Morris will also move into a more central area to accompany Ruidíaz up top. While he does this, Seattle often looks to move the right back up into an advanced attacking position.
In addition to this, the Sounders’ movement in the midfield is also central to their identity in possession. Typically, Joao Paulo drops closer to the Seattle backline to help circulate the ball in possession and create space for Roldan and Lodeiro to attack in central midfield. This movement also allows space for Ruidíaz and Morris to exploit in the center of the field. Seattle has a big emphasis on creating space in the center of the field for their best players to exploit. Thus, the Sounders often looks to get the ball into these central areas as quickly and as often as possible, especially when Morris tucks inside.
Seattle is notably more dangerous when in offensive transition. Meaning the moments after they have won the ball back and have space to attack. As mentioned before the Sounders have an abundance of pace in the flanks and quality in the central part of the field which shines in transition. The majority of the Sounders’ goals come from these transition moments.
As good as Seattle is in the attack, the team’s defense has been shaky at times in this postseason. Despite this, it is a defending core that is no stranger to big moments and the bright lights of the MLS Cup.
Typically, Seattle is not a team that presses high up the field. The pressing tendencies that the Crew saw from New York Red Bulls and at times from the New England Revolution will likely not be present in this match. In fact, Seattle will likely set up in a lower defensive block against the Black & Gold. A good recent example of this for Crew fans is Nashville SC and their defensive scheme against the Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
How the Crew can win:
The Crew is clearly up against it a bit in this match. Seattle’s playoff prowess is well known around the league and the Sounders are no stranger to the big occasion. Add into this that Could will be without Nagbe and Santos and the Black & Gold have an even tougher task at hand. Luckily, there are still ways for the Black & Gold to exploit Seattle and win the match.
First and foremost, the Crew needs to control the tempo of this match and eliminate Seattle’s attacking transition opportunities. If this game turns into a game full of transition moments and opportunities, it only favors the visitors. The slower the game is played, the better for the Crew. Not only will that limit the attacking transition opportunities for Seattle, but it is also a style that the Crew frankly prefers to play.
Additionally, the Sounders have not yet proven that they can break down an opponent’s defenses in the run of play without transition. If the Crew is able to limit these moments it will go a long way toward finding success in this match.
The Black & Gold also needs to be spectacular on defensive set pieces. Seattle has essentially progressed through to MLS Cup due to the team’s attacking set piece prowess with goals from dead balls in each of the last two games.
One feature of note in the Sounders set pieces is the movement of Ruidíaz. In both Seattle’s first playoff match against the Los Angeles Football Club and their more recent against Minnesota, Ruidíaz scored off of an attacking corner. Both times, Ruidíaz drifted to the back post while his teammates rushed the front post. With the defense distracted by the movement, Ruidíaz found himself in acres of space to dispatch the ball into the net. The Crew will certainly be on the lookout for this on defensive corners.
Lastly, the Black & Gold need to be clinical in front of goal against Seattle. While seemingly obvious, putting the ball in the back of the net when presented the opportunity needs to be of the highest priority for the Crew. There is no telling how many chances Columbus will have in this match and they need to convert any that they are presented with. Seattle has proven time and again that they are capable of taking their chances when presented with them and are adept at scoring goals out of nowhere.
Porter and his staff may take a different approach to this game due to missing Nagbe and Santos, especially early on. While the Crew has typically been a team that looks to dominate possession and break down opponents, the Black & Gold typically are best at that with Nagbe and Santos on the field.
Thus, look for Columbus to both hold a little bit lower defensive block and let Seattle have possession of the ball a bit more than the Crew would normally allow. This would serve two main purposes.
First, it would make the Black & Gold more compact as a defensive unit, limit the space the Sounders have to play in and limit Seattle’s attacking transition moments. As mentioned above, the Sounders have not proven they can score or even create chances consistently without the transition aspect of their attack, which this low block helps to limit.
In addition, this lower defensive block would encourage Seattle to push more numbers forward, which of course leaves vacated space for the Crew to attack. With the pace of players like Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne Jr and Emanuel Boateng, and the quality of Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes, the Crew can absolutely pose a threat to Seattle in these transition moments.
Lastly, this strategy allows the Crew to control the game and limit both the scoring and scoring chances each team finds. Columbus is far more likely to beat Seattle 1-0 than 4-3, especially without Nagbe and Santos. Thus, the benefits of sitting deeper and allowing the Sounders to have the ball a bit more, far outweigh the negatives.