COLUMBUS, Ohio — In this capital city, in the land of Brutus, Buckeyes and Blue Jackets, where the Scioto and Olentangy tangle and North Market dazzles with color and aroma, soccer will celebrate another special occasion Saturday.
In the downtown Arena District, where the hockey complex, minor league ballpark and soccer stadium line up neatly along West Nationwide Boulevard, some 20,000 spectators will gather for the MLS Cup between the Columbus Crew and reigning champion Los Angeles FC.
For the third time in nine seasons, the Crew is hosting MLS’s championship match, adding to local soccer lore famous for World Cup qualifiers between the United States and Mexico. That five-cycle tradition ended when organizers moved it down Interstate 71 to Cincinnati.
For the first time, MLS will settle matters at Lower.com Field, which is much more elegant than its name. It opened 2½ years ago, the culmination of desperate efforts to save an MLS founding member from skipping town.
The previous times the Crew earned hosting rights — for a loss to Portland in 2015 and a victory over Seattle in 2020 — home was a simple stadium at the state fairgrounds, a few miles from the city center. The team is now housed in a modern gem, across the street from a repurposed power plant, where the old smokestack is smothered in Crew black and gold.
“The game has grown so much, not just the past couple years, but new leadership has come in and the new stadium,” Crew captain Darlington Nagbe said. “It’s been huge. It’s been great, and now hosting the MLS Cup hopefully will continue to grow the game here in Columbus and Ohio.”
To reach the final, the Crew, seeded third in the Eastern Conference, needed to win a pair of away matches, first beating No. 2 Orlando, then toppling MLS’s best team in the regular season, FC Cincinnati, with a two-goal comeback and 3-2 extra-time victory last weekend.
LAFC won the title last season at home, defeating the Philadelphia Union in a shootout after an extraordinary 3-3 draw through 120 minutes. Visitors this year, Coach Steve Cherundolo’s team is favored because it carries championship experience, among other formidable attributes.
Still, “we have to play above our average to beat Columbus,” Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini said.
The Angelenos will attempt to become the first team to repeat since their fierce SoCal rivals, the LA Galaxy, won in 2011 and 2012. Only two other teams have gone back to back: D.C. United in 1996-97 and the Houston Dynamo in 2006-07.
It was not a smooth road to the final. After putting early-season efforts into a run to the finals of the Concacaf Champions League — a competition that has historically bruised MLS teams for the rest of the year — LAFC faltered in the U.S. Open Cup and inaugural Leagues Cup before landing third in the Western Conference standings.
During the four-game playoff run, it did not concede a goal in the past three matches.
“It’s a lot of emotion, and at the same time, you are tired physically,” attacker Carlos Vela said of the challenging campaign. “It’s a real battle with yourself. I am proud of what we did all season. We lost multiple [tournaments], but we are in a final again.”
Cherundolo, a former U.S. national team right back, has already entered elite company. Only Bruce Arena (D.C.) and Brian Schmetzer (Seattle) have also coached in a final in each of their first two seasons.
His counterpart, Wilfried Nancy, could make history as the first Black coach to lead a team to the trophy. The Frenchman is in his first season with the Crew after guiding Montreal for two seasons.
“I am grateful to work for an organization that is clear about what they want to do,” Nancy said. But “without my players, I can’t do anything. The players on the pitch write the story.”
The story has been written by Patrick Schulte, a 22-year-old goalkeeper who, until this year, had never appeared in an MLS match. It has been written by Cucho Hernández, a 24-year-old Colombian forward whose $10 million acquisition last year was the largest in club history.
Columbus received a late-season boost with the signing of forward Diego Rossi, who starred for LAFC from 2018 to 2020 before moving to Fenerbahce in Turkey.
Additional storytelling has been provided through veteran acquisitions: winger Julian Gressel, in a trade with Vancouver, and striker Christian Ramirez, another ex-LAFC member, in a preseason signing from Aberdeen in Scotland.
Nancy’s system produced a league-high 67 goals in the regular season and 13 in five postseason games.
“Watching their games, their goals, it’s beautiful,” Cherundolo said.
Standing in the way of the Crew’s scoring threat is goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, who suffered a broken leg disrupting a breakaway in extra time of the MLS Cup last year and did not return to until late this season.
LAFC’s attack revolves around Vela, MLS’s MVP in 2019 who might be playing his final game for the club after six seasons, starting with the 2018 expansion campaign.
Cherundolo values Vela’s skill set and the manner with which he has captained the squad.
“And that is maybe more important rather than his left foot,” he said. “He’s our leader, and he is the least-selfish world-class player I’ve ever met.”
While Vela is LAFC’s ringleader, Dénis Bouanga is its total-package forward — a player who parlays speed, technical ability, unpredictability and quick-thinking into devastating results. He has posted 24 goals in 35 games across the regular season and playoffs.
Limiting Bouanga’s space on the flanks would go a long way toward the Crew lifting its third MLS Cup title in a life span that began in 1996 at Ohio State’s enormous football stadium.
Before and after Saturday’s match, fans will gather at Betty’s Bar, a windowless concrete dive a field’s length from the stadium. No matter the result, there will be much to cherish.
Nancy said, “The city, the fans, the organization and my players deserve it.”