The opening day of the Major League Soccer season is a time of excitement. Every team starts on the same footing and there’s a sense of hope among every fanbase.
But for Columbus Crew SC, who twice in the last three years — including Saturday’s game at Toronto FC — have faced the defending MLS Cup champion who defeated the Black & Gold in the postseason prior, it has not been as exciting.
“Yeah, that’s really fun,” Crew SC captain Wil Trapp said sarcastically.
Similar to 2016, when the Black & Gold were part of an MLS Cup rematch to begin the year, losing 2-1 to the Portland Timbers, the Columbus players and staff had to watch as TFC celebrated its title, one that might have been Crew SC’s if the team was able to convert one of its chances in the two-leg Eastern Conference Final last November.
Unlike two years ago, the Black & Gold knew how to use the emotions of the day in their favor to secure a 2-0 road win to begin the season.
“I think Portland was different,” Trapp explained. “We weren’t in as good of a position mentally. This team, you could almost see it on our faces as it’s happening, a seething anger that’s kind of underneath the surface.”
The emotion carried over into the game.
Despite beginning the season on the road against the defending champions, it was clear from the initial kickoff that Crew SC were not intimidated by Toronto. In the opening 14 minutes, Columbus were the more dangerous side, keeping TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono alert.
“When the game starts, we try to score a goal every moment. We work for a goal,” winger Pedro Santos said.
“It’s important because we know Toronto will press us and make more pressure to try to score a goal.”
The goals did not come early, but the Black & Gold’s aggressiveness did payoff just before halftime.
Federico Higuain opened the scoring in the 44th minute on a one-time finish from inside the penalty area after new left full back Milton Valenzuela redirected a long switch from Artur into the playmaker’s path.
With the lead at the break, Crew SC optioned to stay the aggressive and attacking side as opposed to bunkering defensively against the talented Toronto front men.
“It was to get the second goal,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said of his halftime message. “It was to keep pushing... We knew it was going to be difficult. We wanted to keep the ball and keep them moving.”
The tactic worked, as less than a minute into the send half, Santos fed Gyasi Zardes for a debut goal and 2-0 lead.
Down two, TFC pushed forward and controlled most of the second half, but the tone had been set by Columbus and the damage was done.
As it was two years ago, the prematch festivities were not what Crew SC prefer to open the season. The difference in 2018 was the response from the team and how the players on the field handled the situation once the game began.
“What I noticed from the group was that they were calm,” Berhalter said of his team. “They were calm about the performance, they were calm about the game and I think that’s the important thing. We know we’re not a finished product yet. We know we have work to do. I think that’s the good sign is that we can still improve and get better.”
In 2016, that opening-day loss to Portland spiraled into one the worst seasons in recent memory for Columbus. How will the Black & Gold respond to such a positive start to 2018?
“The same way we always do,” Berhalter said. “I don’t think we let one result affect us either way, whether we lose or win. Our goal is to keep getting better.”