The world looks a completely different place since the Seattle Sounders won their first MLS Cup trophy in 2016. Yet, four years later and on the verge of capturing their third title in four appearances when they take on Columbus Crew SC on Saturday (5:30 p.m. PT; FOX, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM), so much in Seattle remains the same.
At the helm is Brian Schmetzer, who already owns the MLS record for playoff winning percentage. In goal is Stefan Frei, the 2016 MLS Cup hero, denying Jozy Altidore of a sure extra-time winner. In midfield is Cristian Roldan, the do-it-all, two-way dynamo who has rightfully earned himself United States national team caps. Up front is Jordan Morris, the beloved Homegrown, whose career and potential appear to have no ceiling.
And in the middle of it all is the driving force behind Seattle’s success in Nicolás Lodeiro, the Uruguayan playmaker well on his way to cementing his legacy as one of the club and league’s all-time greats.
“When you look at their roster, you look at their talent, look at their locker room, look at their coach, look at [General Manager and President of Soccer] Garth Lagerwey: There’s no coincidence why [the Sounders have] done as well as they’ve done,” said Columbus Head Coach Caleb Porter. “It’s going to be a really exciting game. I told the guys I wouldn’t want it any different. If we’re going to win a championship on our home field, I want to do it against the best team. Certainly, the Seattle Sounders are the best team, hopefully next to us.”
Seattle finished the 2020 regular season second in the Western Conference despite a daunting schedule facing the likes of the Portland Timbers and LAFC several times each. The Sounders sport three MLS Best XI players in Lodeiro, Morris and forward Raúl Ruidíaz, and reloaded on defense and in the midfield.
Crew SC will be without vital midfield players Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, both of whom are not medically cleared to play, and the Sounders believe the match will be decided by whichever team can control the center of the park better.
“Their midfield three reminds me a lot of our three,” said Roldan. “We don’t have a true [No.] 6, they don’t have a true [No.] 6, and we have guys who just want the ball at their feet, guys that will cover ground but aren’t complete destroyers. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a battle. That’s where the game is going to be won. It’s going to be extremely important for the guys who play in the middle to do their part.”
Gaining a tactical edge in that area will be something of utmost importance for Schmetzer and Porter, two coaches intimately familiar with one another. Porter was in charge of the Sounders’ rivals the Portland Timbers from 2013-17, which fostered an unabashed rivalry between the two. That animosity has mostly quelled since Porter left Portland, and Schmetzer and Porter have gotten to know each other on a more personal level through mutual coaching courses, but there won’t be any love lost on the sideline on Saturday.
“In the beginning, Caleb and I might have butted heads, but as the years have progressed, I’ve softened up in my old age,” Schmetzer said. “Caleb’s a very competitive, good coach. He’s done a great job getting Columbus to host MLS Cup. He has done a lot of work in a short amount of time, and it’s going to be a good, entertaining final.”
Both coaches are steadfast in the way they approach matches, albeit differently. Schmetzer is, as he always is, focused on playing his and the team’s brand of soccer.
“Our style of play is not going to alter dramatically for this contest,” Schmetzer said. “We always try and impose our will on our opponents. Sometimes we make slight adjustments because they have a talented player. We’re not going to change who we are. We’re going to sharpen everybody up and give them the right tools, the right messaging and the right videos so they can study their opponent. The team that’s going to make the most plays on Saturday is the team that’s going to win.”
Much of that messaging will be relayed through Lodeiro in equal parts vocal and by example. He is the heart and soul of this team and covers more ground than any other player in MLS. As a veteran captain, he is very much an extension of the coaching staff, and his teammates will look to him for leadership on Saturday.
“My strength for this game is to maintain focus and motivation,” said Lodeiro. “It’s not just the 11 who start, but also we have a good group, including the guys coming on in the second half. It’s about incentivizing them to enjoy these moments. We don’t always play these types of games, these types of finals. It’s about keeping the team united regardless of what happens. I always think to help the team to make everybody give their best.”