COLUMBUS — No matter the absences from the lineup or the opponent, Caleb Porter implored the Columbus Crew to impose themselves.
Porter’s players responded, putting aside the recent history of the defending champion Seattle Sounders and capping the most unpredictable of MLS seasons with one of the league’s original franchises raising a championship trophy.
“We were not going to let history in the past determine today,” Porter said. “This is our year. This is going to be our year, it was going to be our day, it was going to be our trophy. And that was my message before the game. I don’t care what they’ve done in the past, it’s going to be decided on today.”
Lucas Zelarayán scored midway through the first half and added the clincher in the 82nd minute and the Crew won their second MLS Cup title, beating the defending champion Seattle Sounders 3-0 on Saturday night.
Derrick Etienne Jr. also scored in the first 45 minutes for Columbus. The Crew withstood Seattle’s second-half pressure and finally celebrated after Zelarayán’s second goal.
“I think we took advantage of every single moment that we had,” Zelarayán said through an interpreter. “We tried to be strong every time we had the ball, and I think we capitalized on every single opportunity that we had.”
Zelarayán, the MLS newcomer of the year and largest signing in franchise history, was the best player on the field on a night the Crew were playing short-handed. Columbus was without midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos after both tested positive for COVID-19 this week.
“Two of our guys went down and we needed to do extra for them because we know what they mean to this team,” Columbus captain Jonathan Mensah said. “We had to do this for them.”
Despite the absences, the Crew were the decidedly better side and Zelarayán was the instigator. Columbus claimed its first title since 2008 and denied Seattle a chance at being just the fourth back-to-back champions in league history. The Sounders, playing in their fourth final in five years, were trying to be the first repeat champions since the LA Galaxy in 2011-12.
“It’s a massive opportunity to go back to back, which happens very, very rarely. It happens very rarely that you find yourself in situations to win the big one. So who knows if we’ll ever make it back?” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “It’s a massive, squandered opportunity for us and all credit to them. They played a good game. They were hungry.”
It was the first appearance in the final for Columbus since 2015 when the Crew were denied a title by the Portland Timbers and current Columbus coach Caleb Porter. The franchise was nearly relocated just a few years ago, but efforts to keep the team in Columbus proved successful and now there is a championship to celebrate.
The loss of Nagbe and Santos seemed to be the biggest story entering the final. It was the first time this season Columbus played without either player in its lineup.
But their teammates — namely Zelarayán — made their absences moot.
“This guy was unbelievable,” Porter said. “I don’t think he had a wrong step for 90 minutes. He just got the ball every time. He carved space for himself, all the time.”
Zelarayán scored in the 25th minute off a perfect feed from Harrison Afful, getting behind Seattle fullback Alex Roldan and snaking his left-footed volley past goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Six minutes later, Zelarayán made the smart play finding Etienne and his curling shot gave Columbus a 2-0 lead. Etienne started in place of Santos.
“Obviously, you go one goal down, that’s OK. But going two down certainly was a dagger,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said. “That was something that you have to give credit to Columbus.”
And Zelarayán showed patience before rocketing a left-footed shot past Frei for the final goal. Zelarayán was the third player in an MLS Cup final with two goals and the first since Alecko Eskandarian in 2004.
Seattle needed a frantic comeback in the final 15 minutes of its Western Conference final against Minnesota United just to reach MLS Cup. Down 2-0 to Minnesota, the Sounders scored three times, including Gustav Svensson’s winner in stoppage time off a corner kick.
The deficit was the same for most of the second half against Columbus, but the magic of Seattle’s comeback just five days earlier was absent. The Sounders had numerous chances in the second half, but attempts failed to find the net. Nicolas Lodeiro’s shot through traffic in the 71st minute trickled wide. Three minutes later, Svensson’s header off a corner kick failed to find the target.
Jordan Morris had the final good look for Seattle in the 80th minute, but his header was saved by Eloy Room.
Schmetzer said afterward that Lodeiro was dealing with a calf strain that limited his effectiveness. Seattle was shut out for only the fourth time in 27 MLS matches this season.
“It’s certainly not a good way to end your season,” Schmetzer said. “But I would circle back and say that the club, the team, did come back through some adversity, and made it to another final, back to back, which is very hard to do in a league like MLS with parity.”