In a game that kept both sides on the edge of their seat, the Columbus Crew won the Eastern Conference Final, edging out the New England Revolution 1-0. The Crew dominated large portions of the game, holding New England to only 10 total shots, four on target.
Offensively, both playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and forward Gyasi Zardes had multiple great looks, but it was Artur who curved a ball into the bottom corner of the goal in the 59th minute that put the Crew into the MLS Cup Final. Stout Black & Gold defense was the difference-maker, earning an 11th clean sheet this season with backup goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell coming up big when it counted.
With one of the most comprehensive games the Crew has played all season, the team is now one win away from lifting the MLS Cup. A lot can be taken away from this game, this season, and going forward.
The future is bright, and the future is now
Of the starting 11 that head coach Caleb Porter put out on Sunday, only five players were in the starting lineup at the beginning of 2019. This past offseason, the Crew front office made some major changes to build for the future. These moves are already paying huge dividends.
Record-signing Lucas Zelarayan had three shots, with one near-miss shot on goal. But it was the field-flipping cross to Jonathan Mensah that proved why the Argentine is worth all $8 million the team paid for him. The pass placed perfectly, allowed Mensah a one-touch pass to Artur before Matt Turner could get back across and gave the Crew the only goal of the game.
In a shortened season that had Zelarayan out for several games due to injury, the midfielder showed some incredible moments of brilliance that should portend even greater things going forward. While no goals came from it this game, there is obviously some great chemistry between Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes. The “Z-Z Boots” connection has the potential to be one of the most dangerous in the league. A welcome change from the more offensively paltry teams of the Crew’s recent past.
To Zelarayan’s right, there is a rocket with a nonstop motor. Luis Diaz was Porter’s early choice as starting right winger, and it’s easy to see why. The Costa Rican gave defenses fits all season with his speed and hustle. Diaz does not lack confidence either, unafraid to take a difficult shot. And while he struggles with finishing, the Crew have a bonafide star on their hands if that improves. Diaz was a handful for New England’s defense opening things up and creating space for the playmakers.
Even the more experienced leadership on the team shows room for potential. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe has been crucial in Crew’s success and winger Pedro Santos has stepped up big when injuries riddled this team midseason. Tarbell has been more than serviceable in his two playoff appearances in place of Eloy Room, exemplifying the depth that the Crew had to rely on in the most challenging season in MLS history.
True proven stars, rising talent, experienced leadership, and reliable depth are building blocks for a successful franchise. There is no question as to why the Crew was one of MLS’s best teams this year, but this team isn’t going anywhere. And the future is bright for this club.
Defense wins championships
While no one would accuse the Revolution of being one of the most offensively-dominant teams in MLS, in a winner-take-all conference final game, Columbus’ defense shut down the Revs nearly all game. The Crew held Adam Buska and the rest of the opposing offense to only 10 shots, with just four on goal. Center back Josh Williams was a one-man clearing machine, keeping the attack out of the penalty box all game. Next to Williams, Mensah put one of his best showings defensively (let alone, his highlight assist in the lone goal of the game).
After a run of less-than-stellar showings late in the regular season, Harrison Afful has been brilliant in the playoffs. His effort, running up and down the right side throughout the full 90 minutes limited New England’s offense and was crucial in transition to the attack.
But it wasn’t just the back four keeping New England at bay. Zardes put in plenty of dirty work on the defensive end. He and Santos fought up and down the pitch and helped maintain long periods of possession. It was a complete team effort that helped support a backup keeper who was huge in the few moments he was called upon.
This is a big deal, especially in 2020
It cannot go without saying that making it all the way to the MLS Cup Final would be a monumental achievement any year. In the 24 previous finals, the Crew has only appeared twice, winning once. But under the circumstances in which the Black & Gold have endured this year is something altogether different. A season with a four-month pause two games in, only to restart with an intense tournament run, followed by a relentless schedule of multiple game weeks, this season has been unlike any other.
On top of the game load, Columbus without one of its big offseason signings, Vito Wormgoor, for almost the entire season. Additionally, Zelarayan and Nagbe each missed big chunks of the season also with injuries. Even Room missed time throughout the season.
Travel throughout the season was a logistical nightmare that often required the Crew to fly on the day of the game and perform in adverse conditions. All the while, the Black & Gold maintained a stranglehold on the top of the Eastern Conference for much of the season, all while maintaining strict Covid protocols and spending several weeks isolated in Orlando.
And things did not ease up once the playoffs began. Without the safety net of a home-and-home draw, the Crew battled through a single-elimination tournament that saw games put into question when eight total players tested positive for COVID-19.
The fact that, with so much adversity and uncertainty, the Crew has come out as one of the best two teams at the end is impressive, to say the least. This team fought through what could have been season-crippling injuries and a grueling schedule in often empty stadiums. Win or lose on Saturday, Black & Gold supporters should be proud of this team and should not take for granted this effort.