The biggest things to watch in Saturday’s MLS Cup final

Posted By Harrison Hamm on December 11, 2020

MLS Cup Final: Saturday, December 12th at 8:30pm ET
Betting Line: Columbus Crew +200 | Draw +215 | Seattle Sounders +143

Saturday’s MLS Cup final will feature teams that have been two of the best in the league for most of this season: the Seattle Sounders, who are in the pursuit of a dynasty, and the Columbus Crew, a dominant defensive team. 

Columbus will host, a tremendous victory for a club that was nearly relocated just a couple of years ago.

They open a state-of-the-art soccer stadium next season, so this will likely be the last postseason game that will be played at storied MAPFRE Stadium. Hopefully, for their sake, this MLS Cup final goes better than it did in 2015, when a goalkeeper howler and a referee error doomed them against Portland.

Seattle are the favorites, but they are far from unbeatable. They were down 2-0 until the 75th-minute at home in the Western Conference finals against Minnesota United, storming back to win 3-2 in a wild result. 

Let’s take a look at some things to watch in the biggest game of the season.

Columbus’s midfield defense

Darlington Nagbe is an elite MLS midfielder, but he is not known for his shutdown defense in front of the backline. Columbus has gambled on using Nagbe as part of a double-pivot with fellow box-to-box midfielder Artur, risking defensive fortitude in exchange for Nagbe’s uncanny ability to pull the strings and complete every pass he attempts.

The Crew have yet to allow a goal in the postseason, so criticizing their defense is hard. But their most prominent weakness (alongside backup goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who will continue filling in for the injured Eloy Room) is the area in front of the center backs, where Nagbe can get beat. 

Something to watch: If Columbus has a lead in the second half, like Minnesota did, it will be interesting to see how Caleb Porter uses his substitutes to fortify his defensive strength in midfield.

Against New England in the conference finals, a game in which the Crew took a 1-0 lead in the 59th-minute, Porter made just one sub, in the 80th-minute — a like-for-like swap on the wing. He is clearly hesitant to bring in reinforcements, but veteran backups Fatai Alashe and Hector Jimenez could provide defensive solidity against a Seattle team that has every ability to score at any point.

The dominance factor of Seattle’s attack

At rare moments, the Sounders can get bogged down. They are a progressive possession team that keeps the ball in good areas, but can at times struggle to break through disciplined defenses. That happened against FC Dallas in the conference semifinals, when they generated just two shots on target and won 1-0 on a set piece goal by a center back. 

But more often than not, Seattle’s attackers take over games. Even if they’re not scoring, they’re creating quality chances and threatening the opponent’s goal constantly. They have numerous proven playoff performers and elite attackers who complement each other. Raul Ruidiaz is ridiculously clutch, a scorer who always comes through. Nicolas Lodeiro is the heartbeat. Jordan Morris is deadly in space and a really smart passer.

While Columbus rarely makes mistakes, they will have to deal with a Seattle attack that has a history of taking over games. Ruidiaz scores in most of the playoff games he appears in (he has an insane 9g, 6a in nine career postseason games), and Morris can dribble through most teams at will. Seattle is also a consistent threat on set pieces.

Can Columbus’s attackers produce chances on goal?

In some ways, the Crew are a tough matchup for the Sounders. Columbus, as Matt Doyle detailed at MLSsoccer.com, is expert at preventing transition opportunities, which could result in one of those bogged-down Sounders attacks. But none of it matters if the Crew can’t create and finish high-leverage chances on goal.

Lucas Zelarayan, their playmaking No. 10, is the biggest part of that. He works well in tight spaces, with the wingers staying wide and Gyasi Zardes functioning as a finisher, poacher, and genius runner. The Crew need some big moments out of Zelarayan, their best attacking player. Zardes will have to finish his chances, something he’s been able to do for most of this season.

Beating Seattle will be tough if the Crew can’t carve out some quality chances. They have enough on defense to make this really, really tough for the favorites. Homefield advantage matters little in our current national moment. Regardless, the Crew have a great shot to put the exclamation point on an incredible revival.

Prediction: Columbus wins 2-1 (ET)

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