In a Major League Soccer season like no other, which has been paused and restarted several times, it seems fitting that two of the stand-out teams – Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders – have battled their way through to the 2020 MLS Cup final this Sunday.
This will be Columbus Crew's third ever final and their first since 2015, while Seattle's dominant march through the West has seen them contest in four of the last five finals.
Five years ago, a Portland Timbers side managed by Caleb Porter defeated the Columbus Crew 2-1 in their own backyard at the MAPFRE Stadium. This Sunday, Porter will be there again as the Crew's head coach, hoping to come away with a second MLS Cup victory.
There is no doubting Columbus Crew's place in American soccer folklore. The Ohio-based outfit – who are one of MLS's founding members – play at the first ever soccer-specific stadium built for a Major League Soccer team and were the first club to sell over 10,000 season tickets as a precursor to launch in 1996.
The Black and Gold side however have not always had an easy time of it and have made a significant turnaround in the last few years to get to where they are now.
In 2017, the Crew were on the brink of extinction after former owner Anthony Precourt proposed moving the Ohio side over 1,200 miles south to Texas, as he saw more commercial potential for the club in Austin.
After several fan protests and the formation of the 'Save The Crew' campaign, a movement that resonated across America, Columbus Crew were eventually saved and taken over by the Haslam and Edwards families, who vowed to keep the franchise in Ohio.
Since then, the club have gone from strength to strength and now see themselves in the 2020 MLS Cup final with one of the strongest squads that they have had for years.
Columbus Crew began their campaign in the Eastern Conference brightly, and despite losing five of their last 10 matches, Porter's side managed to secure third spot, accumulating 41 points from 23 matches played.
The Crew then went into the playoffs where they defeated New York Red Bulls and Nashville, before victory against New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference final booked their place in this season's MLS Cup finale.
Key players for the Crew this season have been forwards Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos – who have scored 18 goals between them in the MLS – as well as Ghanaian international defender Jonathan Mensah, whose Man of the Match performance against New England proved vital in their Eastern Conference final victory.
Despite Argentine midfielder Lucas Zelarayan having had to battle with several injuries since joining the club from Liga MX side Tigres in December 2019, the 28-year-old has added a notable spark to Porter's squad this campaign and has registered six goals and four assists in his debut season.
The 2020 MLS Cup final will be the last ever match played at the MAPFRE Stadium as the Crew are to build a new arena for the 2021 campaign.
A victory on Sunday in their own city and in their own stadium for one last time will not be seen as the end of an era, but the beginning of a new generation for the Black and Gold.
Like Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders are another team who have had to battle for their existence as an MLS club. Despite the city being considered as a viable location for a professional team back in 1994, Seattle had several setbacks over a period of 13 years in their quest to form an MLS franchise due to a lack of fan-base assurances and ownership issues.
However, since the takeover by businessman Adrian Hanauer and their inauguration to the MLS in 2009, Seattle have transformed themselves into one of Major League Soccer's most successful teams over the last 11 years.
The Sounders have made the playoffs in every season since joining Major League Soccer in 2009 and are the joint-fourth most successful club in MLS history, after winning seven major honours as well as winning the Western Conference on four occasions – with all four of those triumphs under current head coach Brian Schmetzer.
In their 2020 campaign, Seattle won only half of their 22 matches in the Western Conference but were able to finish in second place, level on 39 points with Portland Timbers in third and Sporting Kansas City at the top.
After beating Los Angeles FC and FC Dallas in the playoffs, Seattle mounted one of the greatest comebacks in MLS history against Minnesota United on Tuesday, after scoring three times in the final 15 minutes, including a 93rd-minute header from Gustav Svensson, to secure a dramatic 3-2 victory and claim their fourth Western Conference title in five years.
Forwards Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris – who have a combined 22 goals and 12 assists this campaign – as well as playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, who has provided seven goals and 10 assists, have been three important players throughout Seattle's season that have helped steer Schmetzer's side into another final. The trio are sure to want to make their mark once again in this season's final.
This weekend's game will be the Sounders' fourth MLS Cup final appearance, and all have been within the last five years. Schmetzer's side won the competition in 2016 as well as last year but did lose to Toronto back in 2017.
With the Sounders seeking their third MLS Cup win in five years – and to become the first team since Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 to win the competition in successive seasons – they are surely entering the conversation to be among the greatest franchises in MLS history.
Columbus Crew MLS Playoffs form: WLWWWW
Seattle Sounders MLS Playoffs form: WDWWWW
Columbus Crew have been dealt a huge blow ahead of the match as midfielder Darlington Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos have both been ruled out, as they have been told to self-isolate.
Chris Cadden, Derrick Etienne Jr, Jon Kempin, Miguel Berry, Sebastian Berhalter and Vito Wormgoor were all declared unfit to play against New England and will now await further tests to see whether they can feature on Sunday.
Brazilian midfielder Artur, who scored in the 1-0 win over New England, is set to remain in the starting lineup.
Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer could name the same starting XI for the fourth successive match, the team which has won the previous three playoff games and has scored seven goals.
Swiss goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who has started in Seattle's last three MLS Cup finals, will keep his place in between the sticks.
Midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro will walk his side out for the third time as captain and is set to line up with Joevin Jones and Jordan Morris playing on the flanks either side of him.
Columbus Crew possible starting lineup:
Room; Afful, Mensah, Williams, Valenzuela; Berhalter, Artur; Diaz, Zelarayan, Mokhtar; Zardes
Seattle Sounders possible starting lineup:
Frei; A. Roldan, Gomez, O'Neill, Tolo; C. Roldan, Paulo; Jones, Lodeiro, Morris; Ruidiaz
We say: Columbus Crew 1-2 Seattle Sounders
This Sunday's game is set to be a hotly-contested battle between two sides that have strengths both offensively and defensively. Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter knows what it takes to lift the trophy, but that experience is bettered by that of Brian Schmetzer and his Sounders side. Seattle's core group of players have both history and success in these finals and that experience could be enough to crown them as the MLS Cup winners of 2020.