Through Josh’s Eyes: The Game

[NOTE: To read earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE. And since photo captions might not show in the mobile version, I’ll say right here that all photos are by my friend Sam Fahmi.]

Before the starting lineups made their way to the field for MLS Cup 2020, Josh Williams found himself alone with rookie Aidan Morris. The starters typically gather in the hallway between the locker room and tunnel before coming out, and Williams and Morris were the first two to the hallway. Once the squad got the news that Darlington Nagbe would have to miss MLS Cup due to COVID-19 and Morris was tabbed to fill in, Williams began working on the mental side of the task with Morris, telling him that for five minutes before he goes to bed and five minutes when he wakes up, to visualize his success and the team lifting the MLS Cup trophy. Now, with the game about to kick off, Williams gave the 19-year-old one last pep talk.

“I remember telling him, ‘There are no brakes here. We’re all gas. We’re stepping on the gas and never braking. Don’t play tentative. There’s a reason why you’re here. Trust that. Trust your instincts. I’ve got your back. We’re going at their throats and we’re going full throttle right out of the gate.’”

Morris looked at Williams and said, “Okay.”

It was the affirmative way in which the one-word response was delivered that filled Williams with confidence.

“It was just like, ‘Yep. Got it.’ He just calmly stood there and didn’t look like the moment was too big for him. That moment calmed my nerves for him. And then 30 seconds into the game he gets stuck into a tackle at midfield. He hits the guy and then does a confident jog back and I remember thinking, ‘He’s good. I don’t even need to worry about that.’”

With all eyes on the youngest player to ever start an MLS Cup final, Morris set the tone from the opening whistle. The Crew would unleash utter domination to start the match. All gas, no brakes, just as Williams told Morris in the hallway.

The Crew nearly took the lead in the 17th minute when a Gyasi Zardes blast hit Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei in the arm, but rather than ruing the missed opportunity, the Crew endeavored to convert a more spectacular one. In the 25th minute, Morris played the ball wide to overlapping right back Harrison Afful. With the Seattle defense scrambled out of sorts by a cross-field switch, and as leading scorer Gyasi Zardes made a central run, Afful picked out Lucas Zelarayan’s unmarked far-post run. Afful drilled a perfect early cross that hit Zelarayan in stride. The Argentine cleanly volleyed the ball with his left foot. The ball forcefully hit Frei in the hand, but the Seattle keeper’s attempt to smother the ball was unsuccessful as it leaked through him and rolled over the line and into the net. The cross and the finish were simply breathtaking.

It was a little less clear on the field.

“When Harry whipped in that ball, I was organizing with Jona in case the ball got cleared out,” Williams said. “I only saw G. I didn’t see Lucas at the back post, so I thought the cross was high. And then I saw him connect and all I could see was that Stefan got a hand to it and then the ball disappeared and I didn’t know where it went. Then I saw the people behind the goal raise up and I took off in a dead sprint. While I was running I was thinking, ‘Oh my god! What a goal! What an incredible goal!’ And I specifically remember thinking if we’re scoring goals like this, nobody is going to beat us. As I was running toward everyone, I had such an overwhelming sense of belief in what we were doing.”

A fired-up Williams kept stoking the fire with the young Morris, who assisted on the first goal.

“When we got the first goal, I told him, ‘We’re gonna step on their throat and get the second one. And when we get the second one, we’re gonna step on their throat again and bury them.’ It wasn’t like talking to a sheepish little 19-year-old. He was a man, he knew the mission, and we finished it. That, to me, was one of the coolest things about it.”

Morris would start the sequence that would lead to the Crew’s second goal just six minutes later. After getting his pocket picked by Nico Lodeiro at midfield, Morris instantly recovered and muscled Lodeiro off the ball before he could launch a Seattle counterattack. Morris once again played the ball out wide to Afful. This time, Afful’s driven cross met an obstruction in Seattle’s Shane O’Neill. However, the awkward height of the cross forced O’Neill into a low header in an attempt to clear the ball. The clearance hit Zelarayan in the chest. He brought the ball down and appeared to have the ball teed up on his left foot. Surprisingly, rather than shoot, Zelarayan laid the ball off to his left, where a wide-open Derrick Etienne Jr. firmly slotted a low shot between a recovering defender’s legs and curled it around Frei’s outstretched hand and into the far side netting.

Williams was the first one to the corner to celebrate with Etienne. I, and probably many others, didn’t notice or think anything of it at the time, but on second thought, there’s a story about why a guy playing in the back was the first to arrive at the celebratory scene on the end line.

“As soon as O’Neill heads it and Lucas chest traps it, I remember taking some steps because I was thinking he chest traps it, cuts it with his right foot, and then we’ve all seen this before. I remember thinking as soon as he took his first touch, ‘Yep, he’s banging this.’ So I take off running! I’m the first one to Derrick because as soon as Lucas cuts it, I took off. And then he lays it off to Derrick and I remember hesitating like, ‘Whoa, that’s not what I expected’ but then the way Derrick shaped his body and hit it, from my angle, it looked good and then the ball hit the net as I continued with my sprint. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god. What a goal. Another class goal.’”

With a 2-0 lead, the confidence Williams felt in his teammates in the build-up to the game was clearly justified. Almost pre-ordained. He and his guys still had a job to do, but there was no question in his mind at that point that the Crew were going to finish the job.

“As a center back, you always have this sense of urgency because of the three guys we were looking at, A guy like Lodeiro gets the ball and it’s like ‘oh shit’ because this guy can hurt us at any moment, and then Ruidiaz is buzzing over my shoulder, and then Jordan Morris can take off on a run and that guy’s a missile. He’s so much faster than you even think he is. So you want to get one goal. But as soon as we got it, it was like, ‘Yep, there’s one.’ And as soon as we got the second one, I was like, ‘Wow. This is over.’ That’s literally what I thought. And I don’t say that to be disrespectful toward Seattle or anything. That’s just where my mind was at the moment.

“The first goal was exactly how we trained all week. The way we scored those goals and the beauty of them, to me, they had me thinking nobody is going to beat us tonight. It was like, ‘We’re scoring goals like this? Who’s going to beat a team scoring goals like this and feeling the way we feel?’”

At the halftime whistle, the Crew held the same 2-0 lead over the Sounders with 45 minutes to play that Minnesota could not hold with 15 minutes to play. Astonishingly, the Crew’s domination was so thorough that the potent Sounders produced an expected goals value of just 0.05 in the first half.

The halftime break afforded Seattle an opportunity to regroup and recharge, whereas the Crew knew they needed to maintain focus on the task at hand. As much as Williams felt in his heart that the game was over, his head had little difficulty reminding him to stay engaged. Seattle’s comeback earlier in the week proved they could do it, and a 3-1 Crew loss to Toronto earlier this season proved there can be consequences for a team resting on its laurels after a stellar first half.

“It was easy because Seattle gave us an example the week before of what they are capable of, so we knew we needed another goal,” he said. “The next one wins it for us. I remember telling guys, and I must have said it 20 times, ‘45 minutes and we’re legends.’ I kept saying that over and over. ‘45 minutes and we’re legends. Just lock in. What we did was great, but nobody is going to remember that if we lose this.’ I remember thinking about the Toronto game and we played one of our best halves of the year in the first half, but then they stepped it up in the second half like a championship team does and we didn’t have an answer for that. So there are examples of what could have happened, but just looking around the locker room, everyone was saying the same thing. ‘We need another one. We need to take it up a level.’ That’s pretty much the hardest thing to do when you’re up 2-0 at the half against a championship team and knowing what they’re capable of.”

The easiest way to stop a team of Seattle’s caliber from mounting a comeback is to deny them the ball. Late in the Western Conference final, an exhausted Minnesota sat back and scrambled to defend all of Seattle’s weapons. The results were historically calamitous. The Crew couldn’t risk doing likewise.

“You have to go out and maintain that style of play and keep the ball and there’s some risk because if you keep the ball, you’re going to have to play it around the back a little bit and they’re going to have guys buzzing around. We knew we were always going to be at a disadvantage a little bit in the second half because they were going to throw the kitchen sink at us. All year, I think we’ve been handling crosses well. We’ve been handling set pieces. All year, we’ve done great at handling those moments, so I think we had a lot of confidence heading into that, but we knew it was going to be a dogfight in the second half.”

There were some nervy moments. Seattle unleashed two subs at halftime and two more in the 60th minute, including ultra-dangerous super-sub Will Bruin, who sparked the comeback against Minnesota. The Sounders nearly scored in the 51st minute when a Cristian Roldan corner kick header whistled wide. Lodeiro hit a shot just wide in the 71st minute following a poor clearance by Williams. The journey to three goals starts with one, and Seattle could never get the first despite throwing everything they had at the Crew.

“We expected that to happen, but at the same time, it’s never a comfortable experience,” Williams said. “Roldan did the first header three or four minutes into the half off a corner. He put it right over the crossbar. I think that kind of woke everybody up that we needed to raise our level. They might have the ball, but as long as we are up for the challenge, they are still going to get some shots off. That 0.05 expected goals against in the first half against a team like that is never going to be sustainable. Then there was the one where I cleared the ball but Jona and I had a miscommunication. I cleared a ball out and I should have let him do it because he had more momentum. I cleared it only to the top of the box and it got trapped down and bounced around and it fell to Morris, who laid it off to Lodeiro, and the shot goes just by the goalpost. I remember looking back with my hands on my head. And then I remember smirking and thinking that, yeah, this doesn’t seem like it’s going to be their night.  And then Svensson has a header that glances wide that I’ve seen him bury before. And then the sealer to me was the Morris header where Eloy comes through.”

In the 80th minute, Seattle had a free kick in the offensive third. Lodeiro clipped a service into the box and Morris hit a looping header that appeared destined to drop into the upper corner of the goal. Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room made a save so spectacular that the official record erroneously lists it as having hit the post because nobody could believe what they actually saw.

[NOTE: For more on the save, the resulting confusion, and Josh’s insistence on setting the record straight for me, please read today’s accompanying companion piece. It will launch into a new tab so you can circle back to it when you’re done with this story.]

“I remember when it went up, thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s upper 90 to the top corner.’ And then Eloy came through and just swatted this thing away. He was so giant in that moment. The way he smacked it, it was like Shaq when he blocked it. And in that moment, I just knew things weren’t falling for them. There are little tells like that throughout the game. I don’t know if it’s always like that, and it may have looked chaotic, and we were under siege there for a little bit, but in the moment, it didn’t feel so bad. And that may have been a false belief that were just giants in that moment. But it turns out we almost were.”

Giants-in-the-moment status was confirmed 87 seconds after Room’s save when Columbus bagged a third goal to remove all doubt. Winger Luis Diaz, equal parts race car and bulldozer, blazed down the right side and shed a Brad Smith tackle as if Smith were a cornerback trying to bring down Nick Chubb in the open field. Diaz turned the corner, laid the ball back to a trailing Zelarayan at the 18, and then celebrated after Zelarayan took a controlling touch and lasered a left-footed shot into the upper corner at the far post.

“With Luis, we saw that all year,” Williams said. “To go against that guy for 90 minutes, he’s going to eventually get by you. It’s not only that he’s faster than you, but he’s got these powerful legs and is stronger than he looks. He always has this extra gear. If you’re off balance, or if you’re lunging for anything, he’s by you. He has the ability to stay up. He’s a thoroughbred out there.

“In Nouhou, they had probably the one guy who I was thinking might be able to give him trouble for 90 minutes because he’s such a good athlete, but after halftime they took him out for Smith. I knew Smith was probably better getting forward, but to me, I was thinking it’s a matter of time before the ball gets played out there and it’s a footrace. As soon as he got down the sideline, it’s the same thing we’ve all seen time and time again. He pushes, pushes, and pushes until he’s got the edge and then you have to lunge in because if you take another three steps he’s going to be by you and he’s gone. So you lean in but he stays up. And then for him to be calm in that moment, to take a nice little cut and then play a perfect ball back to Lucas. As soon as Lucas takes that touch, it’s that touch I was talking about before. When he gets a clean touch in space, you might as well just put it on the board because he’s so good in those moments. And the way he hit it, I don’t think I will ever forget that sound. There’s a sound of the net. If you turn it up, there’s a sound of like the clasps that are holding the net there. On Derrick’s goal and Lucas’s second goal, they sounded like a swish to me. It’s like when somebody hits a three-pointer in basketball. It’s the best sound in sports.”

Photographer Kyle Robertson of the Columbus Dispatch tweeted the defining image of MLS Cup 2020.

“I will never forget that play. That play is forever etched in my head. It’s that feeling of seeing it going in and realizing that it happened. I think everybody knew at that point. So when it goes in, and again thinking of the way it goes in and the goals that we scored, it was just fitting for that moment. I felt like we were on such a level that those were the goals we should be scoring in this moment. I hope that doesn’t come off as cocky or anything. That’s just the belief I had in our squad. So to see it happen that way, I just thought it was so cool. It was so cool. I was basically a spectator at that point. And then to be running toward that pile, I mean, celebrating goals is the best thing ever because that’s the reward for what you’re doing, so I remember running and Jona and I looking at each other as we were sprinting and we both knew it was over. That was one of the coolest experiences of my career.

“It took everything in my power not to run off the field to start celebrating with my friends and family. But I also remember thinking I wanted to keep playing because I was having so much fun. I didn’t want it to end because when you’re playing that way, and you’re scoring goals like those goals, that’s why we do it. So when you’re playing and you’re in the flow and you’re scoring goals like that, you don’t want to stop. I will forever love the game because of moments like that, because of games where you are so locked in with your teammates, and the ball’s moving how you want it, and you see goals like those. You don’t want it to stop. I wish we could have played all night.”

It may not have been all night, but the Crew still had to play for another eight minutes, plus stoppage time. Even with the title assured, Williams still had another urgent task for himself and his teammates.

“I remember looking back at Jona, Eloy, Milton, and Harry and saying I want a zero. It was important to me after the third goal to keep the zero. A shutout, I mean, putting three on the board means the offense was amazing, but if you put a zero on the board, it links the whole thing together. It means offensively and defensively, everybody played well. As a defender, I wanted the zero. But it was kind of a blur. I remember there was a time where I was kneeling on the ground in the middle of a play and Fatai was like, ‘Josh! Let’s go!’ So there were moments in and out at the end there where I was in disbelief.”

One of the most heartwarming moments for Crew fans was seeing Hector Jimenez sub on in the 83rd minute and Waylon Francis sub on in the 90th minute. Along with Afful, they were players in the gameday 18 that were members of the 2015 Crew squad that lost MLS Cup at home to Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers. Porter got them all on the field for the final whistle of the Crew’s 2020 triumph.

“That was one of the coolest things about that night,” Williams said. “I’m so happy for those guys, It wasn’t talked about much, but that was one of the best moments of the night for me was when Hector came in and Waylon came in. And I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Caleb about this, so I don’t know if he meant to do that or if that was just what the game was calling for. Either way, those are two guys we trust wholeheartedly with the game on the line. But the ability for those two guys to get in and experience it, I thought that was an unbelievable move. I’m just going to say that Caleb meant to do it because it’s almost too great not to be intentional. So hats off to him for that. It was a classy move. Being such good friends with Hector, and being teammates with Waylon for so long, it just felt so good.”

Moments later, all of Columbus would feel so good. With three tweets of the referee’s whistle, Josh Williams and the Columbus Crew were the 2020 MLS Cup champions.

It was time to celebrate.

TOMORROW: Through Josh’s Eyes: The Celebration

******

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