It is finally over.
Columbus Crew SC was officially eliminated from 2019 MLS Cup postseason contention on Wednesday night thanks to a 2-2 draw between the New England Revolution and the Portland Timbers. The point for the Revolution puts New England, who sit in the seventh and final playoff spot, at 42 points on the season, one more than the maximum the Crew can reach with two games remaining.
This draw ends one of the strangest and more disappointing Black & Gold seasons in recent memory.
Columbus came into 2019 on an all-time high. The Black & Gold fans and the city had just done what was thought by many around Major League Soccer to be impossible, by helping to keep the team in Columbus through the Save The Crew movement. This came after owner Anthony Precourt announced late in 2018 his intentions to move the club to Austin, Texas unless he received a downtown stadium.
After months of hard work by fans and many around the city, the tandem of former team doctor Pete Edwards and Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam officially purchased the club in January. With their purchase came the promise of a new downtown stadium, something that is quickly becoming a reality.
The new ownership group hired president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter to replace Gregg Berhalter, who handled both roles over the previous five years. The duo was considered a super team of sorts after winning MLS Cups in previous roles with Toronto FC and the Portland Timbers respectively.
It was a bright start to the 2019 season for the Crew, winning four of the team’s first six games and sitting at the top of the MLS Eastern Conference table early in the year. But a slew of injuries began to take its tole in April and a downward spiral ensued.
After star left back Milton Valenzuela was lost for the year in the preseason with a torn ACL, playmaker Federico Higuain suffered the same injury in late May. This moved winger Pedro Santos centrally and created a void on the outside for the Black & Gold. Right back Harrison Afful was lost for an extended stretch with a broken jaw, center back Josh Williams and a number of wide players all missed time as well.
In addition to the injuries, Columbus lost key pieces to international duty to start the summer. Forward and leading scorer Gyasi Zardes, midfielder and captain Wil Trapp and goalkeeper and All-Star Zack Steffen were all called up to the U.S. National Team by Berhalter for the Gold Cup. Center back Jonathan Mensah was part of the Ghanian squad to take part in the Africa Cup of Nations, and when he returned, Jonathan was injured and missed time. Following the Gold Cup, Steffen departed for Manchester City, leaving the Crew with backup goalkeepers Jon Kempin and Joe Bendik.
This led to Porter working with a make-shift lineup that did not have enough depth and looking for ways to just stay afloat in MLS play. The team went on a run of one win in 16 matches from April 13 to July 17, falling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Of the 13 losses over those four months, eight of those defeats came by one goal. It was a sign that the Black & Gold could compete but struggled to finish or close out games.
But all was not lost despite the lack of results for such a long stretch. The summer transfer window saw Columbus as active as it ever has, acquiring seven new players and shipping out three others as Bezbatchenko and Porter looked to shape the roster in their image. This included adding Curacao goalkeeper Eloy Room, Costa Rican youngster Luis Diaz and reserve forward Romario Williams, all of which made a quick impact with the Crew.
As players got healthy — despite continuing injury issues with Williams and fullbacks Hector Jimenez and Waylon Francis — and the internationals returned to the fold plus the new additions settling in, the results began to turn. Since a 2-2 draw with the Chicago Fire on July 17, the Black & Gold have just one loss in the team’s last 11 games played. Unfortunately for Columbus, six of those results have ended in draws, including allowing three late goals to turn three points into one. A few more wins mixed into those recent results and the team is probably competing for a playoff spot on the final day of the regular.
But signs were there that this team is moving in the right direction.
After competing in the postseason for the last four years, including one MLS Cup and two Eastern Conference Final appearances, the Crew will be on the outside looking in for 2019. The Black & Gold have two games remaining in what will always be remembered as a disappointing season, home to the Philadelphia Union on Sunday and at Toronto on Oct 6.
The focus then shifts to an offseason that will be crucial for Columbus to return to the postseason in 2020. Expect more changes to the roster and Bezbatchenko and Porter look to build off the improved run of form to end this campaign and become a force in MLS next season.