The Columbus Crew will not defend their 2020 MLS Cup championship even with a 2-0 victory against the visiting Chicago Fire on Sunday in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Columbus (13-13-8, 47 points) won their final three games and were 7-2-2 in the past 11, but along with D.C. United, finished a point behind the New York Red Bulls for the seventh and final spot in the Eastern Conference.
Lucas Zelarayan, the MLS Cup MVP when the Crew earned a 3-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders 11 months ago, continued his late-season surge with a 31st-minute goal for a 1-0 lead.
Miguel Berry made it 2-0 in the 58th minute after a video review showed his rebound shot crossed the goal line before an appreciative home crowd of 19,351. The MLS rookie from Spain had eight goals in just 18 matches.
The Fire (9-18-7, 34 points) got eight saves from 17-year-old keeper Gabriel Slonina, as the Crew desperately sought goals knowing there was a potential goal-differential scenario that would have given them an advantage over the Red Bulls.
As it turned out, a 2-1 home loss to New York on Oct. 23, when the Red Bulls scored the winner in the 87th minute, proved to be the difference in the standings.
Chicago finished out another disappointing season in which coach Raphael Wicky was fired in September and replaced on an interim basis by Frank Klopas.
The Fire hope to rebuild in the offseason and have already unveiled a new logo for the 2022 season.
Columbus threw everything at the Fire in hopes of scoring, using just two defenders. It also helped to have Zelarayan, who weaved his way through the defense for the opening goal, his 12th of the season.
Zelarayan had five goals and three assists in his last five games.
Chicago has not won at Columbus in the past 12 matches since 2013.