For the vast majority of the 2020 Major League Soccer season, the Columbus Crew sat atop the Eastern Conference and MLS standings. The Crew, the surprise team of 2020, navigated the crazy waters of the pandemic delay and the MLS is Back Tournament to have an 11-week run as the statistical best team in the East before a week-long dip down to second in early July and in late August.
Since the beginning of September, the Black & Gold have been the class of the league and East, putting together an impressive six-game unbeaten run in total. However, Wednesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Montreal Impact, the first blemish on a previously perfect 7-0 mark at MAPFRE Stadium, saw Columbus drop below Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union and into third place in the East on goal differential for the first time since March.
It may be obvious, but head coach Caleb Porter and the Crew were not happy losing to a team in Montreal that entered the game near the bottom half of the conference.
“That’s a game we should win,” Porter said after the match Wednesday night. “We’re at home. No disrespect to Montreal, but we’re playing a team where, if we’re on our level, we should beat.”
Despite entering the game against the Impact on the back of the team’s least-convincing run of form this season — a less-than-pleasing 2-1 win against Minnesota United at home, a 3-1 loss “at” Toronto FC and a 2-2 draw on the road against FC Dallas — the loss to Montreal came as a surprise. This was projected as a get-right game before more difficult tests await.
Yet the Crew came out of the gates flat, allowing the Impact to hit the post three minutes into the match and fumbling away possession too frequently in the opening 20 minutes. Then came the opening goal, which was a poor defensive play by a team that has been so good on that side of the ball throughout the year.
“We just had it wrong,” Porter admitted. “We had it wrong to start the match. It was too loose, we were sloppy on the ball, we gave some balls away in transition.
“The goal came off a throw-in where (Lassi) Lappalainen pulls off the line and then literally turns and threads a ball through our back four. So it’s really a situation that we have to be better, obviously.”
It was a soft finish to allow and put Columbus in a hole 23 minutes into the game. But it was a defensive play indicative of how the Crew’s defense has played of late. After being on a historic pace throughout the first half of the season, conceding just five goals in 13 matches, the Black & Gold have allowed seven goals in the last three contests.
For a Crew side that preaches team defense and generally swarms to the ball in order to prevent the opponent from even reaching its backline, the last three games have not been good enough.
“We need to get back to the principles of defending,” center back and captain Jonathan Mensah said. “We’ve done a good job from the start of the season, the restart and all that. We just need to get back to what we do best. We need to watch the film and get together and start doing what we were doing in our previous games. We know we can do better.”
The Crew is a team that hasn’t shied away from its own expectations this year. Before the MLS is Back Tournament, Porter made it clear that the goal in going to Orlando was to come back with nine points from the three group stage games, which counted toward the regular season, in order to best set the team up for postseason success down the line. Anything else Columbus achieved in the tournament was gravy, but winning the MLS Cup is the ultimate goal in 2020.
And while upsets happen in MLS each week, Porter believes that teams as good as the Black & Gold want to be don’t have performances like the one on Wednesday night.
“I’ve seen this result a lot. You see it every week,” he said. “This is like your classic MLS result where you’ve got a team at the top of the table playing a team at the bottom of the table. It’s an old trap game, you see it all the time and we’re better than that. The best teams don’t lose this game… We don’t want this result to happen, especially with the goals that we have and the standards that we have.”
Putting it simply, dropping three points in a loss to now eighth place Montreal at home is a bad result, especially considering how good the Crew has been at MAPFRE Stadium this year, a place the team refers to as its “fortress.”
The result cost Columbus both poll position in the Supporters’ Shield race and the top spot in the Eastern Conference, at least for now. With seven matches remaining, the Crew still has time to climb back to the top of the standings and guarantee home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, in turn, creating the easiest path to the goal of the MLS Cup.
But to do that, the team has to begin getting better results on the road, a place the Black & Gold are winless this year, and play better consistently than it did on Wednesday night.
“Now it’s going to get a little harder,” Porter said, “and now we have to make up for it by going and winning on the road. It’s that simple.”