The 2020 Major League Soccer season was unlike any other in the league’s history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season featured a four-month pause, an unprecedented midseason tournament in Orlando followed by a return to home markets that was done in phases.
Because of the change in schedule, games had to be fit in where they could. For the Columbus Crew and other teams in MLS, that meant playing games nearly every four days, rarely getting the six, seven or eight days to prepare for a match that other seasons typically provide.
But the Crew navigated those rough waters and qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs. As the third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Black & Gold will face the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
This means that from the regular season finale against Atlanta United on Nov. 8 until the Nov. 21 game against New York, Columbus will have had 13 days to get healthy, train and be ready for the postseason.
“If you tell me I have two weeks to prepare for a game versus three days or one day or no days, I’m going to be really happy,” head coach Caleb Porter said of this time. “The more time for me the better to be able to prepare.”
When a team has a short turnaround, as was the case between most games in 2020, the talk is usually about fitness. But equally as important is the inability to train between those games. Players who took part in the previous game have to recover and receive treatment before getting back out on the field. This stunts the ability of the team to work together and put a game plan in place, regardless of the lineup.
While it wasn’t talked about much throughout the regular season, this became a factor for the Crew. When the team had six or more days between games in 2020, the Black & Gold’s record was 4-1-4. Every time Columbus came back from an extended time off, the team won.
“It’s always important to have time to prepare for matches,” midfielder Lucas Zelarayan said last week. “Ideally, I’d love to have an entire week between matches to prepare physically, mentally and technically.”
That will be the case as the Crew begins its postseason.
Following the win against Atlanta, which secured the third-place finish in the East, Porter and the staff gave the players three days off. They believed, after going for essentially 16 straight days while playing five games in three weeks to end the regular season, it was important for the players to have a few days of rest and recovery.
Refreshed, the team returned to training last Thursday with a schedule in place to lead up to the game with the Red Bulls. The Black & Gold had two days of training followed by an intra-squad scrimmage last Sunday to stay in the normal game rhythm. The team had Monday off before Columbus began its normal four-day build up to a Saturday match.
“So a couple of days recovery, four days of training, intra-squad, four days of training,” Porter said of the schedule. “It’s important without the game on the weekend to mirror and emulate what we would have normally gotten on the weekend. It’s going to be the trick for every team. With too much time off, sometimes you lose a little bit of sharpness, rhythm, fitness, quality. But I think for us, because we’ve not had training and because we’ve not had rest, it’s going to serve us really well, these two weeks. We’re loving digging into some things, showing video, having just a lot of time just to kind of prepare.”
With the extra time, the Crew staff and players were able to really focus on the details of their team. The group began with the attack the first three days back in training. Each session started with film before stepping onto the field and getting into the details of that focus area. After the scrimmage on Sunday, the Black & Gold shifted attention to the defensive side of the ball and playing in transition, something that will be key against New York, again, with a focus on certain details each day.
By doing this, the team was able to spread out a normal work week over the course of several days and maximize the time available. It is the first time since late August before games resumed following the MLS is Back Tournament that Columbus has had time to knuckle down and focus on individual parts of the game and then train with those in mind.
All of this, of course, was geared toward the Red Bulls and being ready for what the team will see in the first round of the playoffs. Unlike the East’s top two seeds, the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC, the Crew knows its opening opponent in the postseason and can focus training for New York.
“In terms of preparation, we can really do some things that we don’t normally get to do,” Porter explained last week. “We started working on Red Bull yesterday, the very first day back in… We’ll kind of hit every phase and really be specific as it relates to Red Bull and what they do.”
For every team in MLS, this time off before the postseason begins is welcomed. After the most grueling season in the 25-year history, the break was certainly welcome. And the fact that the schedule will continue in the traditional, more spaced-out format throughout the playoffs is important.
But for the Crew, at least, it was much-needed time to get back into training, something this team enjoys, and work on aspects of play that will have the Black & Gold ready for its MLS Cup run.
“We’ll take it one (game) at a time, we’ll prepare really well for each match and we’re going to throw everything into winning and advancing and we’ll prepare again,” Porter said. “So that’s the mindset right now. The group wants to be 4-0 at the end of the year and raise the club’s second MLS Cup. But we’re not going to get ahead of the next game. We’re going to focus on the next game and be locked on to our normal process and preparation.”