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MLS Cup preview: Columbus Crew host defending champion Seattle Sounders

by Joshua Doering

The Seattle Sounders are playing in MLS Cup for the fourth time in five years, but unlike the previous three occasions, their opponent is not Toronto FC. Instead, they will take on the Columbus Crew, who reached MLS Cup for the first time since 2015, when they fell at home to the Portland Timbers. That Timbers team was coached by Caleb Porter, who will be trying to make up for the disappointment he caused Crew fans five years ago by winning the club’s first trophy since 2009. 

Here is what you need to know before Seattle and Columbus take the field at MAPFRE Stadium on Dec. 12. 

By the numbers:

0.89 – The Crew earned an average of 0.89 more points per game when Darlington Nagbe was in the starting lineup this season. They won two out of every three contests he started and one out of every three he didn’t. The 30-year-old tested positive for coronavirus and will not be available for MLS Cup. 

4 – Four of the five goals scored by Seattle and Minnesota United in the Western Conference Final came off of set pieces with both teams finding the back of the net twice from dead ball situations. Three of the Sounders’ last four goals have been of the set piece variety. 

15 – Seattle striker Raúl Ruidíaz has directly contributed to 15 goals in nine career playoff games. The Peruvian is averaging exactly one goal and 0.67 assists per game in the postseason. 

11 – There were 11 Crew players who logged at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season. Two of them — the aforementioned Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos — have been ruled out of MLS Cup after contracting COVID-19. 

1 – The only team in Major League Soccer to beat the Sounders in the playoffs with Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro on the field is Toronto. Morris missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL, the only season Seattle failed to reach MLS Cup in Brian Schmetzer’s five years as the team’s head coach. 

Matchup to watch: Jordan Morris vs. Harrison Afful

The absence of Santos means Morris — who finished fourth in MVP voting — will be the most dangerous wide player on the field by a considerable margin. He recorded double-digit goals and at least seven assists for the second season in a row after returning from the torn ACL. Afful is going to be the one largely responsible for trying to keep the 26-year-old in check, which is almost a prerequisite for Columbus to win at this point. 

X-Factor: Will Bruin

Bruin made an immediate impact against Minnesota, pulling a goal back for the Sounders two minutes after coming into the game. While the Crew’s lack of depth was an area of weakness even before they lost two starters, Schmetzer knows he can turn to Bruin and his 80 goals (regular season and playoffs combined) for a spark off the bench. The 10-year veteran is more than capable of changing the complexion of a game instantly, as the Loons quickly found out. That’s the definition of an x-factor, is it not?

Columbus wins if: The Crew can do to the Sounders what they did to the Revolution

The Crew got past New England in large part due to the defensive job they did against the Revolution’s attacking duo of Gustavo Buo and Carles Gil. They controlled large portions of the game and prevented Buo and Gil from having the same kind of impact they did in New England’s previous victories. Seattle has its own lethal attacking duo in Ruidíaz and Lodeiro, who have delivered stellar performance after stellar performance in the playoffs. This is the aspect of the game where the Crew will miss Nagbe most.

Seattle wins if: Nothing fluky happens

The starting lineups of these two teams at full strength are comparable and would’ve made for a compelling matchup. Removing two of Columbus’ five most important players from the equation leaves the Sounders with a sizable talent advantage. The Crew’s best hope of lifting MLS Cup is to defend well and hope to catch a break through a set piece or deflection. Asking them to possess the ball the way Porter wants to — the way they do when they’re at their best — in these circumstances is unrealistic. Columbus is much more likely to win the game with Seattle having the better scoring chances than to lose as the team with the better opportunities. 

Photos by Ray Terrill / Wikimedia Commons (right) and SounderBruce / Wikimedia Commons (left)

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