At the Major League Soccer level, no one likes to lose. But sometimes losses, in a strange way that maybe aren’t noticed at the time, can be beneficial to a team. That’s the case for Columbus Crew SC.
It has been six months and four days since Crew SC were handed a 1-0 defeat by Toronto FC in the the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final. The loss in Toronto in late November, following a 0-0 draw in Columbus in the first leg, cut off a special run for the Black & Gold through the postseason that nearly ended magically.
“They’re still the last team we lost to last year,” defender Josh Williams said of TFC. “They wrecked our dreams last year. There’s still that little edge.”
While Crew SC often don’t like to look back, choosing to focus on the task at hand rather than the past, no one is running from the memory of that season-ending lost to Toronto. According to head coach Gregg Berhalter, the players who returned from last year used that disappointment to drive them in preparation for 2018.
“I think what it was was motivation for us and I think that’s the best way to describe it,” Berhalter said. “I think we came up short against a very good team when we felt, over the two games, that we had chances to win that series. It was disappointing.
“But what it did was, almost to the man, the day after the game they said they can’t wait to get started again. ‘We want to start the season,’ and it was motivation to get better and improve. How can we add to the team to make the team better? How can we come back next year a stronger team? That was our focus.”
Columbus got a little revenge in the March 3 season opener against Toronto, spoiling the championship celebrations at BMO Field with a surprising 2-0 road victory to open the year. That began the best start to a season under Berhalter, who is in his fifth year with the club.
Including that win, Crew SC is 7-3-4 through 12 games this season and has accumulated the second-most points in MLS, sitting just one point back of league leaders Atlanta United. While the season remains young, just over a third of the way through, the Black & Gold have put themselves in a good position early on and have major ambitions in 2018.
While the Black & Gold certainly would have preferred to get the win against the Reds in the postseason and host MLS Cup for the second time in three years rather than losing the series, Berhalter believes the motivation to get better from that game has been a major catalyst in the strong start to the season.
“I think the mindset of the group is extremely important,” he said. “And if you have a group with a mindset that they’re going to improve, they’re going to work hard to get the results they want to get, you can go a long way. So I think that absolutely has something to do with it.”
Conversely, TFC won the series with Crew SC and went on to defeat the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final. Since taking home the club’s first major trophy, Toronto has just three MLS wins — although the team did make it to the CONCACAF Champions League Final — and sits in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
There are plenty of excuses for why the Reds have struggled on the back of the MLS Cup win — title hangover, focus on the Champions League, injuries — but this is still a talented Toronto team coming to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday night that could turn things around at any moment.
“This is a good Toronto team,” Berhalter said. “There’s no way we’re at ease playing Toronto on Saturday. We think this is going to be one of our toughest tests so far at home, if not the toughest.”
The loss to TFC in the conference final last year was in no way how Crew SC envisioned the year ending. After getting hot over the last third of the season, the Black & Gold thought they were the most deserving team in the postseason and came, literally, within inches of the championship game.
But from the sorrow and frustration of the defeat came the motivation necessary to put in the work this offseason to make sure Columbus is back in contention for a championship in 2018. To throw that hard work, and the current seven-game unbeaten run, away to the team that caused the suffering last year is something Crew SC certainly don’t want on Saturday.
“We’re just thinking about keeping an Eastern Conference team below us in the standings. We’re not putting too much emphasis on them getting going,” Williams said.
“There’s always going to be a little factor of, yeah we beat them 2-0 but there’s always that burning desire to beat them again.”