Columbus Crew SC is dealing with something new. Yes, the team is 0-2 but it's more than that.
After surprising Major League Soccer two years ago with a late run to finish third in the Eastern Conference, the Black & Gold weren't shocking any teams when the club finished second in the East and were a runner up in the MLS Cup last season.
Only two games into this year's MLS season, Crew SC is seeing what it's like to be one of the top dogs.
"We've got a target on our back," midfielder Hector Jimenez said. "We've done well the last two years and every team we play is going to give us their best."
In the first match of the season, a rematch of the MLS Cup Final, Columbus went up against the only team with a bigger target on its back in the Portland Timbers. Despite playing the defending champions, Crew SC still saw a team change its style to combat what the Black & Gold brought to Portland.
"What we've seen from the opponent thus far is that we've been having a lot more possession as we expect and sometimes even in the case of Portland where they play very conservative at home and then play for a counterattack," head coach Gregg Berhalter said. "So that's something we have to deal with and we have to get used to."
Less than a week later, the Philadelphia Union came to Columbus, a place the side had never won, and earned a 2-1 victory, pressing Crew SC in the midfield and disrupting the possession style of attack.
It was a humbling experience for a side that was expecting a fast start to the season.
"I think that's a good lesson," Berhalter said of the Union defeat. "That's a good lesson that we have to be sharp. We have to be paying attention to every moment."
While fans would like to see that from their team all the time, it's even more important to maintain focus this year. Even though they lost MLS Cup, the league knows Crew SC is one of the teams to beat this year and that means every team wants to beat them.
"I think the biggest message I can give the group right now is that every team wants to beat us now and it's a different mentality and we have to come to terms with that," Berhalter said. "We have to come to terms with the fact that we have a target on our backs. We have to get comfortable with it and we have to play with more urgency, with more determination, and then we can win games."
Even in defeat, Columbus had the better of the chances against Philadelphia. Crew SC outshot the Union 19-8 and 7-4 on shots on goal, but couldn't capitalize on the chances.
As is typical, the Black & Gold had 17.6 percent more of the ball, but Philly scored on a set piece just before half, finished again on a counterattack in the second, and did enough to frustrate Columbus at home.
"As of late, I think we've preformed pretty well," Jimenez said. "We just haven't gotten the results we deserve. I think we've created enough chances at the start of the game to be up 1-0 or 2-0, but I think it will come."
This is a new experience for Crew SC. While a few players on this team have had club success, most players are dealing with this target on their backs for the first time. While he wants to see his team begin to get results, he also wants his side to enjoy the respect other teams are showing them.
"This is something that we earned and it's something that we should be proud of that we're in this position," he explained. "Having said that, there's still a lot of work to be done and to maintain that is even harder. That's the whole trick."
The good news for the Black & Gold is the man in charge has dealt with this experience before while playing with the LA Galaxy. During his three years with Los Angeles, the Galaxy made it to two Cup Finals, winning one. He wants his to embrace this challenge as those teams did.
"Personally, I thought it was motivating," Berhalter said. "You knew that you had to get up for every game and you knew that it was a big game for every club you played against and I think that to me was a motivator."