In a Final that few would have predicted, the incalculable year that was the 2020 Major League Soccer season came to a close with the Columbus Crew winning the MLS Cup for the second time in team history. It was the Black & Gold’s first coveted trophy since 2008 and their first major trophy since the 2009 Supporters’ Shield.
The match against the Seattle Sounders finished 3-0 after two goals by Lucas Zelarayan and another by Derrick Etienne Jr., which was assisted by the Argentinean playmaker. The victory ensured that the last ever possible playoff match at MAPFRE Stadium ended with the coronation of the newly hometown champions.
Here are our takeaways following Saturday’s historic victory:
A new era is upon us
When a team ends an 11-year trophy drought by winning the biggest prize the league has to offer, it’s pretty obvious that change is in the air. That’s exactly what the Crew stated was the intent both going into the game and moving forward.
“We don’t want to be known as the club that was saved, we want to be the club that wins championships,” head coach Caleb Porter said before Saturday’s performance and reiterated by many around the club after.
After dismally finishing 10th place in the Eastern Conference in 2019 with 38 points in 34 matches, the Black & Gold finished in third place in the East with 41 points through 23 games in 2020, playing 13 fewer games because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Dr. Pete Edwards took over the club, there’s been an upward trajectory painted clearly by the results. After the latest win, Columbus joined only six other clubs in the league to win multiple MLS Cups. The intent is to win more.
Many people wanted to write off Columbus in the second season with the new regime at the helm and with such a poor first show. The Crew was written off in the build-up to 2020 and perhaps rightfully so. But making adjustments and bringing in the players the team wants to compete at the highest level takes time. For some, it takes even longer than this, but for this new iteration of the Black & Gold, it’s already here after only two seasons.
The perfect time to win
Of course, every team entering a new season has winning MLS Cup at the top of their aspirations list. Unfortunately for most, there can be only one champion when it’s all said and done. And winning the trophy in 2020 really couldn’t have come at a better time.
For the club’s newest regime here in Columbus, the Crew won a trophy during what was supposed to be a period of rebuilding. What many people didn’t realize was how streamlined the process has been and just how quickly it’s happened, a year of missing the playoffs altogether. Especially in a season with as many curveballs as 2020 threw out, this latest MLS Cup, which very well could not have even happened in the first place, may long be recognized as one of the toughest trophies to win in not only the league’s history but American professional sports as a whole.
What’s the point here? The Crew ranked as the 11th highest payroll in MLS entering 2020. The team has a large core of players who are entering their prime or are currently in it, which was confirmed by the roster decisions Monday morning. Despite starting the 2020 season with the second-highest average age of any team in MLS at 26.97 years (Portland Timbers had the oldest average at 27.28), Columbus has plenty of wiggle room to make moves this offseason and compared to teams that rank higher in the payroll category, they have room to spend and spend handsomely in areas of need.
With MLS adding three more expansions sides, it is only becoming increasingly harder to win and win consistently. Winning the title in 2020, rest assured the Crew has every intent to win at a high level for a very long time despite the added competition in the ever-expanding MLS. Soak it in Columbus fans.
Money well spent
What do Lucas Zelarayan and former Crew playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto have in common, besides the fact they donned the Black & Gold and share a nationality? They are the only two players in MLS Cup Final history to contribute three goals. Schelotto was the first in 2008 with Zelarayan being the latest in 2020.
Two goals, one assist, a Man of the Match award and Whoscored.com’s first and only 10/10 rating in the 2020 MLS season was only some of what the club-record signing was able to accomplish in only 90 minutes against the Sounders on Saturday. Zelarayan was simply sublime and put his stamp on his first season in a new league with one of the finest performances you’ll see in the history of the MLS Cup.
Moving to a new country, becoming the face of a club and adapting to an entirely new surrounding poses plenty of issues normally but Zelarayan has taken that challenge by the horns and overcome every obstacle. Even with missing time due to injury, Saturday showed exactly why Columbus shelled out a reported $7 million fee for the team’s newest star man.
With Zelarayan out part of the season, it was obvious what the Crew lacked without his presence. The offense was stagnant, couldn’t finish and was a shell of the team that set a historic pace throughout the opening 13 matches of the year, almost a little reminiscent to the Black & Gold we saw in 2019 after Federico Higuain injured his ACL. But despite the losses of key players in Pedro Santos and Darlington Nagbe in the Final, Zelarayan reminded everybody just how special of a player he is and can be. Seeing him do that on the biggest stage justifies every penny of what Columbus paid for his services and perhaps may go down as a bargain considering what other teams are currently yielding to their top players.