The bulk of teams struggled to maintain good form throughout the year. A wild but entertaining shortened season concluded with first-time Supporters Shield winners as the Philadelphia Union led a strong Eastern Conference. After a dramatic postseason however, only the Columbus Crew and defending champion Seattle Sounders remained.
The second-seeded Sounders mounted a wild comeback win over Minnesota United in the Western Conference Final, sending them to their fourth MLS Cup Final in five years.
Down 2-0 in the final 15 minutes of regulation, Seattle cut the deficit in half before Raul Ruidiaz tied the game in the 89th minute. A winner in the last minute of stoppage time sent Seattle through with a chance to establish a dynasty with a third championship title.
Columbus faced a much lighter path to the title game than anticipated, with both of the East’s top seeds bowing out early.
Instead of a highly anticipated contest against Toronto FC or Supporters Shield-winning Philadelphia Union, the fourth-place Crew were tasked with handling the New York Red Bulls, expansion team Nashville SC, and the New England Revolution to earn their third trip to a Final, doing so with six goals scored and two conceded.
Just days before play kicked off in Ohio, the coronavirus once again threw a wrench into the MLS season. Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, two common fixtures in the Crew lineup, both tested positive for COVID, sidelining them for the final match of 2020.
A limited crowd of 1,500 watched as play began in the 25th edition of the MLS Cup Final. From the referee’s whistle, the two teams jumped right into action, trading quick attacking moves inside the opening minutes of play.
A quarter-hour in, Columbus put the first good chance on goal. A header off a corner set up Gyasi Zardes for a volleyed strike from seven yards out. With the ball sizzling towards the net, Sounders keeper Stephen Frei parried the shot with a quick hand.
Columbus kept their early momentum going ten minutes later, as the crosses and corners started to pile up in Seattle’s penalty box. A dangerous diagonal ball from Zardes found its way over the Sounders defense, with Lucas Zelarayan sneaking into open space.
The cross met the boot of the Crew newcomer, with a soft volley narrowly squeezing past Frei to open the scoring.
Just five minutes later, Zelarayan again found himself spearheading the Columbus attack. Another dangerous ball led to a loose ball for the striker, who set up to shoot. Instead Zelarayan took the ball into space, dishing it to Derrick Ettiene, Jr., who placed a shot past a defenseless Frei.
The early pressure paid off as the Crew went into the break with a solid two-goal cushion, but the game was nowhere near out of reach for a resilient Sounders squad.
After late heroics overturned the same deficit just days before, it was clear Seattle had to be kept at bay for the full 90 minutes. Even one slip up could let a lethal team right back into the game.
The second half finally saw the Sounders put a shot on goal, with Christian Roldan testing Eloy Room in the 48th minute. The defending champions finally began to hold possession in the attacking third, challenging the Crew defense.
In the 71st minute, Seattle mounted their strongest attack on the Columbus goal of the night, with Jordan Morris laying the ball to Nico Lodeiro at the top of the box. The Uruguayan’s strike glanced off the post, inches away from giving the Sounders a lifeline.
Another Sounders chance came close to finding the net in the 80th minute, with a looping header going dangerously towards the top right corner. Similarly to Stephen Frei’s great save against Jozy Altidore in the 2016 final, Eloy Room scrambled across his line, getting a hand to the ball to preserve the shutout.
With time winding down and Seattle’s hopes dwindling, Luis Diaz danced around Sounders defenders, creating another Crew chance out of thin air. A pass to a wide open Zelarayan sealed the match, a thumping strike into the roof of the net putting the final touches on a 3-0 win.
With his second goal of the night, Zelarayan became just the third player in MLS history to find the net twice in the Cup Final, joining Landon Donovan (Earthquakes, 2003) and Alecko Eskandarian (DC United, 2004).
For Columbus, the triumph is even sweeter. Three years ago, owner Anthony Precourt looked to move the league’s first club to Austin, prompting a massive response by fans of both the Crew and other MLS teams.
The relocation never panned out, with Precourt departing to start a new MLS expansion team in his dream city. Now, shortly after losing their franchise and in a year faced with endless adversity, Columbus is lifting its second MLS Cup.