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This time two years ago, the Columbus Crew’s future in Ohio’s capital still wasn’t guaranteed. On Saturday, one of Major League Soccer’s original clubs stands alone as the 25th MLS Cup champion.
The Crew stunned the defending champion Seattle Sounders 3-0 Saturday at home, getting two goals from match MVP Lucas Zelarayán and another from Derrick Etienne Jr. in what ended up being a rout. But the one-sided score line was no less than Caleb Porter’s team deserved.
With two league titles and another appearance in the final since 2016, the Sounders entered the contest at Mapfre Stadium as the prohibitive favorite after coming back to beat Minnesota United in the Western Conference semifinal. But even without injured maestro Darlington Nagbe, Columbus came out as the clear aggressor in the silver anniversary championship match in the history of the United States’ and Canada’s top league.
Zelarayán, a crafty playmaker who was recruited by Porter from Mexican side Tigres before the 2020 season, opened the scoring in the 25th minute, the 28-year-old Argentine volleying a brilliant cross-field pass from right back Harrison Afful:
Just six minutes later, Etienne doubled the hosts’ advantage and put the Sounders in what turned out to be insurmountable hole. Once again Afful started the sequence with a dangerous service from the flank. And once again the ball fell to Zelarayán. This time, the the 28-year-old faked the shot and fed Etienne, who cooly fired home past Seattle backstop Stefan Frei:
Zelarayán put the match away in spectacular fashion with nine minutes of regular time remaining by picking the top corner against Frei:
The upset win gave Columbus its second MLS Cup title and first since 2008. It also stopped Seattle’s bid for a third MLS Cup in five years. The Sounders beat Toronto FC in the league final last year and in 2016, and were runner-up to the Reds in 2017.
Columbus also reached the MLS Cup final in 2015, narrowly losing to Porter’s Portland Timbers, Seattle’s main rival. But two years later previous owner Anthony Precourt confirmed reports that he intended to move the team to Austin, Texas. Following a fan-driven “Save the Crew” effort to keep the club from skipping town, a group led by Cleveland Browns Browns owner Jimmy Haslam stepped in to buy the Crew from Precourt, who was awarded an expansion team that will enter MLS next season.
Porter, who previously led the nearby University of Akron to a national title, was hired in 2018 after Gregg Berhalter left the Crew to take over the U.S. men’s national team. After missing the playoffs in his maiden season, Porter and team president Tim Bezbatchenko, an Ohio native who was the architect of Toronto’s MLS Cup winner, retooled the roster last winter. Zelarayán was the centerpiece and the latest in a long line of Argentine attacking midfielders in Columbus. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, recently fired as coach of the LA Galaxy, led the Crew to the 2008 title, winning both regular season and playoff MVP and notching three assists in the final.
Zelarayán replaced countryman Federico Higuaín as the team’s front man for 2020 — a decision that paid off handsomely on Saturday when he delivered the club another MLS crown.
Columbus occupies a special place in the modern history of American soccer. Mapfre became the country’s first soccer specific stadium when it opened in 1999 — in 2020, 18 of MLS’s 26 teams played in one — and the USMNT routinely beat rival Mexico in World Cup qualifiers there. The Crew will open a new $300 million venue in downtown Columbus next year.
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