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MLS Cup preview: Seattle to cement dynasty or Columbus winning at home? Predictions, tactics, more

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Don Garber: MLS still undecided on start of 2021 season (1:22)

MLS commissioner Don Garber explains the decision process to starting the 2021 MLS season. (1:22)

Seattle Sounders FC is contesting their fourth MLS Cup in five years, searching for a third championship in that span of time. Would a win mark them as the greatest dynasty in Major League Soccer history?

Five years ago Columbus Crew SC manager Caleb Porter lifted MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium. The only problem? He was coaching the Portland Timbers at the time. Can he make up for Crew fans' 2015 heartbreak?

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Saturday's MLS Cup final is full of dramatic stories, and ESPN's analysts tell some of the most engrossing that will play out at Mapfre Stadium, break down how Columbus and Seattle match up, and predict who will lift this year's trophy.

Jump to: Tactical matchup | Seattle on verge of dynasty | Porter owes Crew a Cup | Predictions

Tactical matchup

In the run-up to Saturday's MLS Cup final, much of the focus was on the respective midfields. Which one could impose its will on the other and carry the game? With roughly 24 hours to go until kickoff, that's still true, though not for the reasons most observers imagined. The Crew will now be without midfield fulcrum Darlington Nagbe as well as winger Pedro Santos after the pair were deemed "medically not cleared to play," a staggering loss given what each player provides.

It stands to reason that Columbus will need to be even more judicious in terms of when full-backs Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela push forward. The last thing the Crew want to do is expose themselves to the possibility of Jordan Morris, Joevin Jones and Nicolas Lodeiro running wild on the break. In fact, a defend-and-counter approach from the Crew, utilizing the speed of Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luis Diaz along with playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, might be just the thing to break down Seattle's defense.

Set pieces could also be a factor. Seattle tied for second in the league in scoring from such plays (0.50 per game), while the Crew were the best in the league at defending them (only 0.11 set piece goals allowed per game).

Seattle, meanwhile, has the luxury of being adaptable to most any situation. They can be deadly in transition through the likes of Morris and forward Raul Ruidiaz, but they can also control the tempo through Cristian Roldan and Joao Paulo. That duo are also capable of destroying a team's attack if that's necessary. All of this is designed to free up Lodeiro and allow him to show off his creativity.

It stands to reason that like much of the match against Minnesota, Seattle will dictate terms. So long as they can blunt the impact of Afful and Valenzuela, as well as Zelarayan and forward Gyasi Zardes, the Sounders should be successful. -- Jeff Carlisle

Seattle are one win from a dynasty. Just don't say it out loud

It hasn't gotten to the point where the word "dynasty" is taboo in the Seattle Sounders' locker room, but ahead of Saturday's MLS Cup final against the Columbus Crew, it's a topic that players, coaches and executives would just as soon avoid.

Winger Jordan Morris said, "We're trying to push that [talk] off to the side," while manager Brian Schmetzer added, "I'm trying to tamp it down a bit."

But there's no denying that such discussions are surrounding the Sounders for a reason. A win on Saturday would give them a third MLS Cup title in five seasons, which would certainly put them in the conversation with some of the best teams in the league's history.

A look into the Wayback Machine reveals the dominance of D.C. United in MLS' early years, with three MLS Cups, a U.S. Open Cup and two Supporters' Shields in four seasons. There was the "Stealth Dynasty" that was the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo in the early to mid-2000s, where the same core of players won four MLS Cups and a Supporters' Shield over the course of seven seasons. All of this was achieved despite relocation. That was followed by the glory years of the LA Galaxy, who won three MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields from 2010 to '14.

In terms of pure numbers, Seattle is still a tad short of those teams, even if you throw in the Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup double the team won in 2014. That sentiment is shared by the Sounders camp as well. "I don't think there's any point in having the conversation unless we win on Saturday," Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey said of the dynasty talk.

Players like midfielder Cristian Roldan are of similar mind. "I don't think dynasties win 50% of the MLS Cup final games that they've been in. A dynasty has to win the majority of them," he said. "We certainly embrace being at the top and we want to continue in that fashion."

Each era has its own challenges, however. D.C. United and the Quakes/Dynamo dynasties took place in the pre-Designated Player days, when teams were largely built through the draft and astute mining of the foreign market. The Galaxy were the first to really exploit the DP rule to the fullest extent, with the likes of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and, of course, the namesake of the DP rule, David Beckham.

Even though it's only been six years since the last of the Galaxy's titles, Seattle seems to be operating in a different league these days. The spending and international scouting is much more robust, and the advent of academies means teams are taking more and more responsibility for developing their own players. The increased investment in infrastructure (be it in stadiums, training sites or support staff) has been massive too, though there are some common threads that run through all of the league's dynasties.

To a large degree, there was stability in the front office and coaching ranks, which in turn allowed a core group of players to be assembled. Seattle has certainly had that in its MLS iteration. Adrian Hanauer has owned the team from the beginning, and there have been but two head coaches in Schmetzer and Sigi Schmid, two GMs in Hanauer and Lagerwey.

All of which raises the question: Does winning beget stability, or is it the other way around?

Schmetzer comes down firmly on the side of stability giving an organization a better chance of winning, and given his tenure with the Sounders as a player, assistant coach and manager, he would know. It doesn't take much for Schmetzer to trace the progression from the USL days all the way through its move to MLS, dropping in names like Leighton O'Brien and Roger Levesque and Zach Scott and connecting them to Kasey Keller and Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.

Those connections extend beyond the first team, from smart and ambitious owners all the way down to the fans. In between there are sharp executives, like sporting director Chris Henderson and director of soccer analytics Ravi Ramineni, making the kind of decisions that perpetuate a team's run of success.

"Our fans show up in droves, and they give us incredible support," said Lagerwey. "They make us relevant in our communities, and they allow us to generate a lot of revenue. And our owners have always been generous and have allowed us to take the revenue that the company earns and invest it back in the team. And that allows you to require special players like Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro."

This stability sets the stage for opportunities like the one in front of the Sounders, and a win on Saturday will bring this Seattle side that much closer to being a team that's never forgotten. -- Jeff Carlisle

Porter owes Columbus an MLS Cup

The irony isn't lost on Caleb Porter.

Five years and five days ago, the then-40-year-old hoisted MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus. The only problem for the few Columbus Crew SC fans that stuck around to watch the ceremony was that he did so managing the visiting Portland Timbers, breaking the locals' hearts in the process.

"I guess you could say I owe the fans a trophy back," Porter told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "When I do that, maybe finally they'll forgive me.

"When I'm in a job, no matter where I've been before, I'm loyal to that club. My wife laughs because all our former gear goes in the trash bag and we give it away to friends because we can no longer wear the green. So I think there is some irony in me taking this job."

Now in his second season coaching the Crew, he's one win away from making that right. All that stands in his way are the Seattle Sounders FC, a club he's intimately familiar with following that five-year spell in Portland. Considering the success he's experienced everywhere else in his career, it's a timeline that has taken Porter a little by surprise.

"It's amazing in Year 2 that we're here, playing for a trophy," he said. "It took me three years in Akron and three years in Portland, so we're a year ahead of schedule."

Growing up in Michigan and playing college soccer at the University of Indiana, Porter has had an affinity for the Crew since their inception. But it's that spell in Akron, 30 miles south of Cleveland and 125 northeast of Columbus, where this story really begins.

During his seven seasons in charge of the Zips, Porter delivered the University of Akron its first-ever NCAA national championship in team sports in 2010. Central to that national championship was MAC Hermann Trophy winner Darlington Nagbe, whom Porter managed for three seasons at Akron, five in Portland and now in Columbus.

"It's hard to disclose just how close we are because the truth is he's like a third son to me. I've known him since he was 14 years old," Porter says of his relationship with his midfielder. "If you want to know what's the typical Caleb Porter player, it's Darlington Nagbe. Because he brings it all: He's a passer, he can press, he's dynamic, he's a great guy in the locker room and he's a good person. That's the type of player I want in my locker room."

The Crew's preparations for Saturday have taken a significant hit with the loss of Nagbe, who won't be able to play Saturday as the club grapples with more positive COVID-19 tests. Yet Porter's time at Akron helped cement his ties with Ohio, and that connection to the state ultimately brought him to the Black and Gold.

Porter chose to leave Portland after the 2017 season and spent the next year out of the game. But in December of 2018, he was reportedly on the verge of joining the LA Galaxy. Having failed to make the playoffs that year despite the prolific presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy certainly represented the sort of project that Porter said he wanted in his next job. But he stressed to ESPN that he works harder and is more motivated to win when he's invested in a city and his family is connected to the community. The Galaxy may appeal to any manager, and Los Angeles may be attractive to anyone willing to relocate for work, but that opportunity didn't include the emotional element of Ohio's capital.

"I wasn't born in Ohio, but my kids were -- all three of them were born in Ohio. I was married in Ohio, I love Ohio," Porter said. "It's why I picked Ohio and Columbus Crew over several other maybe even sexier jobs and sexier cities. I'm a Midwest guy through and through. I wanted my kids to be raised here."

If Porter has his way on Saturday night, he'll raise another trophy in Ohio, too. This time for the home fans. -- Austin Lindberg

Predictions

Columbus Crew

There's no place like home, and going winless on the road the whole season only serves to highlight how dominant the Crew have been at home. Including the playoffs, Columbus has won 12 of 13 matches at Mapfre Stadium -- not bad for a team that, only a couple of years ago, was on the verge of leaving its home behind for Austin. The Crew were miraculously saved, and here we are staring at a team with a real opportunity to complete the most unlikely fairy tale for the city.

I am admittedly biased, but the whole playoff picture has opened up beautifully for the Crew to win their second MLS Cup title. -- Alejandro Moreno

The Crew felt like the quality team in the East all year, and a midfield with Artur and Lucas Zelarayan may be the most complete and multifaceted in the league, though the loss of Nagbe will sting. The Crew have the greater need and motivation, too: The careless losing of the 2015 final sticks in their craw, and they will have all the benefits of playing at home without much of the associated pressure. -- Adrian Healey

Seattle Sounders

You can start calling Seattle a dynasty now. The Crew will make a game of it, but the Sounders will win 2-1. -- Jeff Carlisle

If I had to choose, I'd go with Seattle because of their experience in the final. -- Steve Nicol

I would love Mapfre Stadium to get the send-off that the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS history deserves, but you can't pick against Seattle in a knockout game. The Sounders have more firepower and Raul Ruidiaz has always been a better finisher than Gyasi Zardes. That'll be key in a final that is very unlikely to be a wide-open affair. -- Sebastian Salazar

After all the city of Columbus has been through in saving the Crew, having watched Caleb Porter lift an MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium five years ago at the expense of the hosts, there's no denying that the Ohio capital club deserves its first trophy in 11 years. But man, Seattle is just built for the Cup. -- Austin Lindberg