From #SaveTheCrew to MLS Champions
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As the final whistle blew, the lucky 1,500 fans at Mapfre stadium in Columbus, Ohio exploded into celebration. Masked staff and players embraced each other, and Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter ran around the field, cheering with the gleeful fans in attendance. After a chaotic season plagued by COVID-19 and postponed matches, the Crew secured their second league title ever, defeating the former champions, the Seattle Sounders, in a 3-0 final.
Crew fans were relieved, to say the least. In 2017, former Crew owner Anthony Precourt explored the possibility of relocating the Crew to Austin, Texas if he could not create a new stadium for the squad in Columbus. His reasoning for such drastic changes was understandable: at the time, the Crew had one of the lowest average attendances in MLS, and moving the team would lift them out of financial struggles. However, Precourt’s plans received widespread backlash from fans, who started a campaign against the team’s movement with the hashtag “#SaveTheCrew.” The Haslam family, which owns the Cleveland Browns, took notice and bought the Crew from Precourt, saving the team with plans for a new stadium in Columbus.
Last winter, one of the Haslam family’s first moves was hiring former Portland Timbers coach Porter to manage the Crew. Porter dashed Crew fans’ hopes in the 2015 MLS Cup Final when his Timbers emerged victorious over Columbus. Once he arrived at Columbus, Porter was determined to lead the Crew’s unified fan base to a second Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
The excitement of victory was only heightened with the triumph of finishing the MLS season during a global pandemic. The league had only started regular-season matches a few weeks before nationwide lockdowns in March but had to put the season on an indefinite pause as COVID-19 cases continued to rise. In July, the MLS is Back Tournament restarted the season, but multiple games were postponed as the season progressed. Prior to the MLS Final, in fact, key Crew players Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos tested positive for COVID-19, which lowered hopes for the title and forced the Crew to adjust. However, the team fought hard throughout the entire season to reach the MLS Cup Final and would not let up so easily.
The Black and Gold showed great improvement from their first games in March to their playoff run. Before the suspension of MLS in mid-March, the Crew had defeated NYCFC in their first game and, surprisingly enough, tied 1-1 against the Sounders, whom they would soon face again in the MLS Finals. After a disappointing defeat by a penalty shootout in the MLS is Back Tournament Round of 16, the Crew continued their season as fierce competitors. They pushed to the top of the Eastern Conference early on and led the race to the Supporter’s Shield, awarded to the squad with the best regular season record. Toward the end of the season, however, the Crew placed third in the Eastern Conference.
The Crew started the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs against the New York Red Bulls in Round One. They cruised by in a somewhat close 3-2 victory against the Red Bulls and moved on to the Conference Semifinals against Nashville SC. The two squads fought for 90 minutes and started extra time, in which the Crew swiftly put two goals up, ending Nashville’s playoff run in 2-0 victory. Columbus was confident as they played the New England Revolution in front of 1,500 supporters at their home field, MAPFRE stadium, for the Eastern Conference Final. The Crew secured a 1-0 victory over New England. The Philip F. Anschutz Trophy was in sight for the squad, which was up against the powerful Sounders in the 2020 MLS Cup Final.
The first dangerous attack in the final match came from the Crew. In the 17th minute, the Crew’s Gyasi Zardes blasted the ball off of a corner kick at Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who saved the shot with quick reflexes. The ball deflected back to Zardes for a bicycle kick attempt, which bounced off of the Sounders’ defense. While they hadn’t scored, the Crew had already set the precedent for the rest of the match.
Only nine minutes later, the Crew’s Lucas Zelarayán, an Argentinian MLS star who signed with Columbus last winter, saw a beautiful cross courtesy of Harrison Afful right at his feet. In a swift one-touch strike, Zelarayán smashed the ball at Frei, who made an error as it slipped through his hands and into the back of the net. In the 31st minute, Zelarayán assisted Derrick Etienne, who curved the ball around Frei into the bottom right corner, solidifying the Crew’s lead.
By the start of the second half, the Columbus squad was putting on a clinic for the Sounders. The Sounders, who were finalists for the fourth time in five years, would not give away an MLS trophy so easily, however. They stepped up the pressure in the second half, beginning with Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan’s header that went just over the crossbar. The Sounders had yet another attempt in the 71st minute, when midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro hit a weak shot off of his left foot that landed just wide of the goal post. Gustav Svensson was the next Sounder to try to score a header, hitting the ball wide of the goal frame. Towards the end of the second half, it was time for the Crew to seal the deal. After a stellar run up the wing, Luis Diaz found Zelarayán in the box, who placed the ball with precision into the top left corner of the Sounders’ goal, sealing the game.
While the Sounders maintained 65 percent possession in the match, the Crew’s attacking ability was unmatchable and unstoppable. The Sounders put all of their effort into the second half, but the Crew were too hungry for their second MLS trophy in club history. The Crew were playing at their home stadium in front of over a thousand ecstatic fans who gave them the confidence and aggression necessary to win. The MLS victory will help finance the construction of their new stadium in Columbus, cementing the team’s home and likely boosting game attendance next season. The club has made an admirable journey, from #SaveTheCrew to MLS Champions, and could soon prove dominant again in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.