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What We Learned as the Crew finished the 2020 MLS regular season

Our takeaways as Columbus heads to the MLS Cup playoffs.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

With all the twists and turns that ultimately was the 2020 Major League Soccer season, it was Columbus Crew that put the team’s stamp on Decision Day by defeating Atlanta United on Sunday 2-1. With the victory, the Black & Gold finished with a record of 12-6-5 and in third place in the Eastern Conference.

While the Black & Gold technically tied on points with Orlando City SC, a late winner by Nashville SC against the Lions on Decision Day was enough to get the Crew the third seed in the MLS Cup playoffs and a home game against the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the postseason. The third-seeded Columbus shattered expectation after revamping much of the side that helped conclude 2019 and a chance at a major trophy this campaign is still on the table.

Here are the major takeaways as we head into the MLS Cup playoffs.

Where we stand

After Sunday’s win for the Black & Gold to conclude the 2020 season, the Crew sit in third place in the Eastern Conference and have an impending matchup against the Red Bulls at MAPFRE Stadium. The game will be played on Saturday, Nov. 21 at 3 p.m. ET.

Normally an irregularity, the Crew and the Red Bull played only once in 2020, all the way back on July 16 in the MLS is Back Tournament group stage where the Black & Gold came out victorious by a result of 2-0. Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Union capped off an impressive campaign which saw the team take home its first ever Supporters’ Shield, the trophy for the top team in MLS each year. Along with Toronto FC, the Union will square off against the higher-seeded play-in game winners, where the Canadian side could be the one awaiting the winner of the Crew’s matchup against New York.

Despite the drop-off Columbus fell to towards the end of 2020, there is still much reason for optimism heading into the postseason.

We know what we have with this Crew

After a tumultuous up-and-down season for the Crew, we finally know what we have on our hands with this team. What is that exactly? We have a Black & Gold side that is the most primed for a trophy since the departure of head coach Gregg Berhalter. We have a Columbus side that, on its day, can go toe to toe with any team in MLS. We also know, however, that this Crew team is dependent on its stars to help see it through games.

Results slipped through the Black & Gold’s fingers time and again when the top players were out of the lineup, which was reminiscent of 2019, whether it was against Montreal Impact or Houston Dynamo. The Crew salvaged results with impressive late victories against Philadelphia and Atlanta, which bodes well for a team that maintains championship or bust expectations in the postseason.

The deficiencies that face this Crew team as well are easy to indentify. The team’s build-up play can underwhelm at times and Columbus’ defending of set pieces is more than dismal. But the Black & Gold also remain lethal and efficient.

To the benefit of the Crew, forward Gyasi Zardes is in the most efficient form of his Black & Gold career, finishing the regular season tied for the second-most goals scored and the most efficient double-digit scorer. His 12 goals on 41 shots (3.41 shots per goal) was the best mark in the league, narrowly edging Orlando’s Chris Mueller (3.6) and the Seattle SoundersJordan Morris (3.9) who both finished with 10 goals on the year.

Ready for a playoff run

Fully healthy, the Crew is on the up just in time for the start of the MLS Cup playoffs. The team will also benefit from a near-two week break and preparation period in order to get fitness levels up and all starters fully healthy. Despite losing five games in its last 10 after only one in the first 13, the Black & Gold were mostly without three starters in Darlington Nagbe, Eloy Room and Lucas Zelarayan, who all proved to be pivotal in securing the highest finish for the Crew since 2015, who finished second in the Eastern Conference before losing the MLS Cup Final to Caleb Porter’s then-coached Portland Timbers.

Artur took a knock or two towards the end of Sunday’s contest and defender Vito Wormgoor has been out since July before exiting the MLS is Back Tournament with a severe ankle injury. However, for the first time in a while, the Crew has a legitimate chance to go all the way and etch the team’s names in the league’s history books.

It’s officially win or go home time for Porter and the Black & Gold.