In the end, it was a little easier than anyone could have imagined.
No team, prior to the Columbus Crew’s Sunday morning thrashing and toppling of reigning kings Seattle Sounders, had won an MLS Cup final by a margin wider than two goals. And the Crew weren’t even in the best shape to claim that record, despite the success they had enjoyed till that point in the season. Just days before the final, in fact, the Black & Gold lost two of their best players, midfield maestro Darlington Nagbe and attacker Pedro Santos, to COVID-19 infections.
It was the latest challenge in a year that had brought quite a few, likened by one Goal writer to “Manchester City [losing] Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling the day before the Champions League final, or if Bayern were robbed of Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Muller.”
It was that bad.
“Of course, it’s a big loss. It’s a big blow,” head coach Caleb Porter admitted, after he was informed on Thursday of the positive test results, with a headache probably pounding away somewhere in his skull.
“It was a tough couple [of] seconds. It was even tougher when I had the chance to go home, wrap my head around it.”
There was no time to brood, though, as the prospect of playing the dominant Sounders loomed. The Washington-based side, a dynasty in the making, had reached three of the last four MLS Cup finals (all, incidentally, against Canadian outfit Toronto FC) and won two. But there was comfort for the Crew in the fact that the Sounders had only ever won finals played at the latter’s home; the only time they had to contest one on the road, in 2017, they lost.
Playing at their own MAPFRE Stadium, the first soccer-specific grounds built by an MLS team, Crew were in with a chance. And they took it, storming into a 2-0 lead with just over half an hour of football played; eight minutes from the end, Lucas Zelarayan’s second goal sprinkled some emphasis and a fair bit of history on the result, ushering the Crew into the elite company of multiple MLS Cup winners. If the outcome suggests the Crew have had a rosy season, nothing could be farther from the truth.
There was, obviously, the coronavirus pandemic, directly affecting as many as ten players in the Crew’s team across the campaign. Then came a difficult period from the end of September through October, during which Porter’s team won just one game in seven. On the home straight, though, everything seemed to come together for the Crew and they breezed through their last three games, scoring six goals and conceding none.
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When the story of how the Crew sealed only their second MLS Cup triumph – a dozen years since their last — is told, a thread would run right through it that leads all the way to Ghana, from where four of the players on the club’s roster trace their roots. One, Emmanuel Boateng, is uncapped for the Black Stars, and only joined the Crew in August. Another, now two-time MLS Cup winner Gyasi Zardes (the Crew’s topscorer this season), was born in — and plays for — the USA.
The other two, Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah, are names that resonate far more in the West African nation. Both are long-serving Ghana internationals, after all, and established starters for the Crew. Afful had already featured in one MLS Cup final, losing to Porter’s Portland Timbers in 2015, but he wasn’t going to be held back this time.
Afful’s impressive ability to swing the ball into the box from his right-wing office — twice — worked a treat. His first cross was volleyed in expertly by Zelarayan for the opener; his second, six minutes later, was only cleared as far as the Argentine, who rolled the ball neatly into teammate Derrick Etienne’s path for a sweet curler to double the score.
Porter would certainly appreciate the value of having a Ghanaian crew on board. Five years ago at this very venue, when he beat the Crew to the title, he had two of that nationality in his MLS Cup-winning squad: Ishmael Yartey and, more prominently, goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey. His favourite Ghanaian right now, though, is likely Mensah, who he appointed the Crew’s captain earlier this year, and a man he has jokingly tipped “to be the president of Ghana one day.”
Centre-back Mensah — signed in 2017 by current USMNT trainer Gregg Berhalter, partly based on Afful’s recommendation — has been the Crew’s top performer this year, even earning himself a place in the MLS Best XI. He assisted the goal that sealed Eastern Conference victory for the Crew a week ago, and he now becomes the first black captain, since retired U.S international Cobi Jones for the Los Angeles Galaxy 18 years ago, to lift the MLS Cup.
In a year that has seen the subject of racial inequality dominate the American discourse, surely, the significance of that cannot be lost on anyone. It’s another step forward for black lives — and Ghana, the self-styled Black Star of Africa, had no small role to play in that.