Sometimes an underdog team’s story is so compelling that, in a very ironic way, their victory comes to be seen as assured. When the spell is strong enough, even the athletes themselves can start to buy into it.
Such was the case with Columbus Crew SC last year in the MLS Cup playoffs until the very waning moments of the team’s 1-0 loss to Toronto FC in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final.
“You take a team like Toronto to the last minutes,” defender Josh Williams said of that defeat late last November, “It’s almost a sense of disbelief, I feel like.”
“Being inches away from hosting another MLS Cup Final? It definitely left a sour taste in our mouths,” added midfielder Hector Jimenez.
There were obviously reasons beyond the team’s great story to believe that Columbus was capable of victory that night, even against what some analysts believe might be the best team in Major League Soccer history. Crew SC had just recently ridden a span of 12-straight MLS games in which the club went unbeaten. The group had already dispatched of league darlings Atlanta United FC and favorites New York City FC from the postseason.
Still, it was probably the way the Black & Gold bounced back from a slow start to the season even as the team’s owner, Anthony Precourt, publicly pursued the potential of relocation that gave the loss its sense of punctured inevitably.
“We were shocked that we weren’t in the Final,” said captain Wil Trapp.
So when Trapp woke up a day later, his body, his heart and his mind were ready for another 90 minutes of soccer. Two more such days passed. Then, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“There’s only so much sitting and waiting around you can do,” he said. “I probably should have used a little bit more time.”
Williams did use more time. “I took about five days to decompress,” he said.
As for the team? Jimenez said they took about 10 days before they were exchanging group messages and getting back in the gym. “Everyone came in with a lot of energy.”
That has helped the club get off to a 2-0-0 start this season following a 2-0 victory over Toronto on the road — the same venue last year ended — in the season opener followed by a dramatic 3-2 win against the Montreal Impact at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday.
Williams, rarely one to let conversation lag, paused for about 10 seconds when asked what it means beyond the quick start.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a team of destiny now,” he said. “I just feel like the hard work is going to pay off.”
And Crew SC fans, players, and coaches will probably take a team riding hard work rather than fate any day.