It is fitting that the 2020 version of MLS Cup is a mix of the familiar and completely bizarre. The familiarity comes from the teams — the Seattle Sounders, a perennial contender, and an MLS original in the form of the Columbus Crew — and the setting. Mapfre Stadium, opened as Crew Stadium in 1999 and home of some remarkable moments in American soccer, will be replaced by a downtown stadium next year.
The bizarre? The biggest game in American men’s soccer will be attended by no more than 1,500 people. MLS Cup has never been played this late in the year, or after this short of a regular season. Covid-19 has deprived the Crew of two major starters in Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, and it’s the reason everything about this feels so odd.
Location: Mapfre Stadium (Columbus, OH)
Kickoff time: 8:30pm Eastern
Projected Crew starting 11: (4231) - Eloy Room; Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, Milton Valenzuela; Fatai Alashe, Artur; Luis Diaz, Lucas Zelarayan, Youness Mokhtar; Gyasi Zardes
The big headlines before the game were very bad news for Columbus, as Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos tested positive for Covid-19. That’s 40% of the Crew’s starting midfield, and in Nagbe in particular a player whose absence more or less ensures that Caleb Porter has to take up a more conservative approach.
His spot will probably go to Alashe, though young homegrowns Aiden Morris or Sebastian Berhalter have a chance as well. It’s less clear who will come in for Santos. Mokhtar is the most similar player among Porter’s options, while Derrick Etienne and Emmanuel Boateng (yes, the guy who couldn’t get a game at D.C. United this year) are also vying for the job.
There’s one other question mark: Room, who was said to have tested positive for Covid-19 and was cleared to return to training a few days ago. If he’s still slowed down after overcoming his illness, Andrew Tarbell will start again.
How did they get here?: Columbus came back to take a lead, then held off a late push from the New York Red Bulls (haha) to win their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal 3-2. Since then, though, it’s been about lockdown defense, as they shut out Nashville SC, winning 2-0 after being pushed into extra time. Six days ago, they kept a clean sheet again, this time keeping the potent New England Revolution quiet en route to a 1-0 victory.
Projected Sounders starting 11: (4231) - Stefan Frei; Kelvin Leerdam, Yeimar Andrade, Shane O’Neill, Nouhou Tolo; Cristian Roldan, Joao Paulo; Joevin Jones, Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris; Raul Ruidiaz
The Sounders have a nearly clean injury report, but Brian Schmetzer still has a couple of selection choices to puzzle over. Leerdam made a huge difference in their comeback win over Minnesota in the Western Conference Final, and had only lost his starting spot because Alex Roldan had impressed while deputizing at right back. It’ll be harsh on Roldan, but we’re thinking the more experienced Leerdam gets the nod.
The other choice involves Gustav Svensson, who scored the dramatic stoppage-time winner that got Seattle here. Normally he’s a starting defensive midfielder, but Cristian Roldan and Joao Paulo have given Schmetzer no reason to break their partnership up while Svensson recovered from Covid-19. The choice here also involves Jones, who is the most likely casualty if Svensson gets the start (with Roldan moving up to the right wing).
How did they get here?: First up, Seattle flexed their attacking muscle against LAFC, winning 3-1 in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Final. They then posted the tough-minded 1-0 win that every champion seems to need to get through the playoffs, knocking FC Dallas out on a set piece goal. Finally, they found themselves trailing 2-0 late against Minnesota United, only to launch an incredible comeback, winning 3-2 thanks to goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes.
Referee: Jair Marrufo
Available TV: Fox (the broadcast one, not FS1), UniMas, TUDN
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
we our friends have to say about it?: Both Sounder at Heart and Massive Report have been going HAM in the last few days, so just click over there and see the full smorgasbord. A couple specific recs? Here’s Massive Report’s breakdown of the potential replacements for Nagbe and Santos, while S@H has a full tactical breakdown of what it’ll take for Seattle to win what figures to be a game played at a slower tempo.
What are you drinking?: I’m using the favorable forecast to go on a hike that is probably going to wipe me out, so I might need a little bit of a boost by the time this gets going. Hot green tea.
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