What a season, what a finish! The Columbus Crew are the champions of Major League Soccer. In a season marred by Covid-19, the Crew proved themselves worthy champions. Full disclosure: I had predicted the Seattle Sounders would repeat from the pre-season all the way to the MLS Cup Pregame. So how did Caleb Porter and Crew – without stars Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos – dethrone the defending champs? It came down to three things: System, Pressure, and some MAPFRE Magic.
Porter and the Crew employ a system where every player knows the responsibility of every other player on the pitch. When they begin to build possession from the back or when they turn over an opponent, the ball can be played to a specific area of the field given the situation. If the opposing team presses, play a ball over the top. If they hang back, take the space in the middle of the field. If they use zonal marking, overload and get a numbers advantage.
The Crew’s system allowed them to more easily overcome the loss of two starters than most other teams. (Imagine Seattle trying to play without Joao Paulo or Nico Lodeiro.) Derrick Etienne, Jr. and Aidan Morris filled in superbly, playing with the confidence that comes from this system.
The system tells players what to do after turning over an opponent, and the pressure of the Crew when on defense forced Seattle into numerous turnovers. Seattle dominated possession (65% to 35%), but of their 472 completed passes, only 118 occurred in the attacking third (25%). Columbus completed 101 of 258 passes in the attacking third (39%). The Sounders tried playing to their strengths – Lodeiro and Roldan building up the middle, and long balls to Morris on the wings – but the Sounders couldn’t break the Crew’s pressure, resulting in meaningless possession and turnovers. And if you watch the replays, the Crew turned defense into offense.
There was a hint of magic in the air as the Crew played their final game in MAPFRE Stadium, the first soccer specific stadium in the United States and an iconic symbol for the MLS. The few fans allowed into the building channeled the energy of an entire fan-base. The odd bounces fell the way of Columbus, and Seattle uncharacteristically missed their few great opportunities, hitting the post twice and seeing a handful of shots put just wide of the goal frame.
It was the Crew’s night, without a doubt, executing their game plan to perfection and capping off a spectacular season for their club and for the league. Congratulations to the Columbus Crew and their entire organization!