Like everyone else, Major League Soccer has had to deal with the difficult realities of the coronavirus this year. The league has seen positive tests and cancelled matches all season long as the ongoing navigation of this pandemic has been the storyline of the 2020 campaign.
With one match left in that campaign, those difficult realities have popped up again. As MLS Cup looms, the storyline has shifted away from the two teams that will be on the field and moved toward the players that have been forced off of it.
Saturday's clash between the Columbus Crew and the Seattle Sounders promises to be a spectacle, but it will be a match defined by the pandemic. Playing in front of an empty MAPFRE Stadium, the Crew will take the field without two of their star players, Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, who have been ruled out after testing positive for the coronavirus.
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Just days before the biggest game of the year, the Crew have lost two of their stars. Nagbe is, by any measure, one of the league's best midfielders, a master at controlling tempo. And Santos scored six goals and eight assists during the regular season before adding two more goals in the playoffs.
It's as if Manchester City lost Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling the day before the Champions League final or if Bayern were robbed of Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Muller. Those are the players that dictate how you play.
In the biggest match of their season, the Crew will need to do it without them as they stare down a Sounders team that is a dynasty in the making, a group that has already captured MLS Cup twice in the last four years.
"Of course, it's a big loss. It's a big blow," head coach Caleb Porter said. "Those two guys have been key players for us. On a personal level, on a human level, if you just take away the soccer, I just feel for them.
"Obviously they're healthy, so that's first and foremost the most important thing. But I just feel for them on a personal level, a human level, that they can't be a part of an MLS Cup that they so deserve to be a part of. A big reason we're here in this position are those two guys."
The Crew have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus this season, having had 10 players test positive since the start of the postseason. It's a sign of the reality the league is currently operating in as cases soar all over the U.S. with the holiday season looming.
On Thursday, MLS Players Association executive director Bob Foose said that "almost 20 percent" of MLS players have tested positive for Covid-19 at some point this season. For all of the league's best efforts and protocols, which included a midseason tournament in a bubble that two teams tested straight out of, it's been difficult to avoid the reality that is the outside world.
For the Crew, that reality has struck at the least opportune time, but it's also a reality that they've been dealing with all season long.
Players missing big games isn't new. It happens every year. Players, inevitably, pick up injuries or suspensions, and the narrative shifts towards how teams will cope without them
But, when Porter was informed on Thursday during training that Nagbe and Santos had tested positive, the news hit slightly different.
"It was a tough couple seconds. It was even tougher when I had the chance to go home, wrap my head around it," he said.
"We got the group turned around. They were on board. As crazy as it sounds, we've been used to so much adversity this year, so many things that have popped up. I've had to tell them so many times, 'Hey, this guy is out, we got to figure out how to sort it out, and we'll be fine'. If it's the first time you're dealing with that, yeah, it's a shock. But we've dealt with it a lot.
"Obviously losing those two guys is a little bit different because they're really key. You never know what you're going to get certainly in this year. At times it's been a war of attrition for everyone.
"We're kind of conditioned to that. Otherwise, like some teams, we would have crumbled, not been able to deal with it. We've dealt with it really well, and I'm very proud of this group for that."
No matter how the Crew approach those absences mentally, there are certain things tactically that they will be unable to do without Nagbe in particular.
Nagbe is a two-time MLS Cup winner, and his role on those teams and with this team is to control tempo. He does it as well as any player in MLS, as he ended the season as the league's most accurate passer with a completion rate of nearly 95%.
The Crew have a gameplan, and that gameplan centers around Nagbe's ability to drop back to receive the ball and then fire it forward. They have players that can step in, like Fatai Alashe and Aidan Morris, but neither can do the things that Nagbe can with the ball.
Porter says that the Crew will not move away from their identity, no matter who is absent. Nagbe missed 10 games this season while fellow star midfielder Lucas Zelarayan missed nine of his own. The Crew play the way that the Crew play, and, even if they wanted to, there isn't enough time to change that.
On the other side of it, Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer doesn't expect Columbus to change. The Sounders have experienced something slightly similar themselves, having made the run to the 2016 MLS Cup without star Clint Dempsey for the entirety of the playoffs. During that run, the Sounders united, beating all in their path to claim their first MLS Cup.
"That's why soccer is a team sport. That's why teams can still have success when they lose certain key players," he said. "It's a bummer, for sure, for Columbus. I get it. Again, our message is going to be, 'Let's not get complacent, Darlington Nagbe is not going to play, this is going to be an easy game.'
"That doesn't come into any of our messaging or our mentality of that group out there. We're too smart for that. We understand that. This is a one-off cup final. I think we all know what's at stake."
What's at stake is the league's biggest trophy to culminate the league's weirdest year. No matter which team lifts the cup on Saturday, it could be argued that no team in MLS history has overcome as much as they have to win it all.
In a season defined by the pandemic that has raged around them, the Crew and the Sounders have the chance to make all of the hard work somewhat worth it. There are absences, yes, and the normally-buzzing MAPFRE Stadium will remain quiet but, despite that, this is still an MLS Cup.
"The best teams and the best players, the teams that raise trophies, are the teams that can ride through that rollercoaster and not crumble, not break, become unbreakable," Porter said. "Those are things we talk about a lot. This was no different. We're going to find a way to perform well and to hopefully win, even though we've of course lost two of our very best players.
"We know it's a big challenge. We know we're playing a very good team. That's, historically speaking, been one of the best teams in MLS history. But fortunately, history doesn't decide a 90-plus-minute soccer game.
"It gives obviously confidence, for sure. We all have that. But the game is going to be decided on the day. It's going to be decided who plays best on the day, who makes plays, who executes. That's going to be the story. We're hoping to execute and perform and step up and find a way to win."