The Columbus Crew kicked off the 2020 Major League Soccer season more than eight months ago with a 1-0 win against New York City FC at MAPFRE Stadium. Since that time, the team — along with the rest of the country — has gone through quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, played four games in Orlando, Florida in an innovative MLS is Back Tournament and returned to home markets in a fragmented regular season.
Throughout that run, the Crew sat at the top of the MLS standings with a historic defense before suffering a mid-to-late-season slide as injuries and fatigue set in due to this unprecedented year.
Beginning on Sunday afternoon, the Black & Gold’s regular season came down to three games. In front of a national television audience, Columbus began that final three-game stretch with arguably the team’s most important win of the season. With goalkeeper Eloy Room, midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan and forward Gyasi Zardes all on the field together for the first time since Sept. 2, the Crew recorded a 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Union, a team that entered the game in pole position to win the 2020 Supporters’ Shield.
“We didn’t want them to win in our stadium and to celebrate on our pitch,” Room said of the victory. “That was a huge motivation point for us as a team.”
While it wasn’t the most attractive game the Black & Gold played in 2020, all that matters at this point in the year is the result. The win against the Union was a confidence-builder leading into the MLS Cup playoffs and also kept Columbus alive for a top-two spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
As detailed by Massive Report, there are a number of scenarios remaining for the Crew heading into its final two games of the regular season. Now it’s about maximizing the results.
Doing this will be a juggling act for head coach Caleb Porter. Awaiting the team over the next five days is a rescheduled trip to take on Orlando City SC and a home game against Atlanta United on Decision Day this Sunday.
“We know how important these two games are,” Porter said. “It’s not just the one (seed), it’s the two. But you can only play one game at a time. We know if we get a win versus Orlando that we’re in a really good position for at least a minimum of top three and that would set up the final game versus Atlanta where we could get the one or the two.”
While the Supporters’ Shield is still mathematically a possibility for the Black & Gold, a six-point gap between Columbus and Philadelphia/Toronto FC and the goal differential (plus-15 for the Crew, plus-22 for the Union) make that top seed in the MLS Cup playoffs unlikely. But a No. 2 seed is still available if the Black & Gold take care of business in the final two games.
A win against OCSC on Wednesday secures a third-place finish in the East and a home game for Columbus in the postseason. But climbing to second place not only provides a perceived easier first-round matchup but guarantees two home games to begin the MLS Cup playoffs.
“We’ve looked at all the scenarios but we’ve got to just win the next game,” Porter said. “We know that we’re tied with Orlando in everything but wins, so it’s good that we have the edge there. So a win in this game sets up really nicely for us at the minimum of the three (seed). And what I love is that the last day will come down to Decision Day when everyone’s playing at the same time, how those results go and we’d be playing for the one or two (seeds) on that last day.”
What complicates matters is the Crew’s schedule. Originally supposed to be played on Oct. 11, Columbus’ trip to Orlando had to be rescheduled due to positive COVID-19 tests within the non-coaching staff. This added an extra game during the final week of the season and potentially altered the Black & Gold’s lineup plans.
With as close to an ideal starting 11 together for the first time in 12 games against the Union, the game against Orlando two days later and a final game next Sunday, the Crew has to be determine how to put out a lineup that can get six more points while also not over-exhausting or re-injuring any of the team’s key pieces.
“This is the shortest turnaround we’ve had all season long,” Porter said. “We do have some guys where we have to be careful with because they’re coming back from injury. We have some guys that we have to think about based on past injury history and age, so on and so forth. This is where our medical staff and our sports science staff can assist us in those decisions and those risks because you have to manage the risk versus the reward in some of these decisions. But we’re going to put out a strong group and we’re going to put out a group that will hopefully give us a chance to clinch the one, two or three seed and set up that last game.”
Porter is likely referring to Nagbe and Zelarayan, two players who have missed nine and six games respectively since the beginning of September. Both players’ first 90-minute outing was in the game against the Union, where neither looked to be back to their normal form.
While it’s important to have those two key pieces, along with the rest of the lineup, playing at their best come playoff time, Porter wants to make sure they are healthy so they can be used in the postseason. The duo isn’t likely to play 90 minutes in both of the last two matches to close out the regular season, meaning the Black & Gold won’t be at its best for the entirety of two important games.
After eight-plus months and 21 games, Columbus’ place in the final standings comes down to these final two contests. After a crazy ride, the Crew will do whatever the team can, while keeping an eye on being ready for the postseason, to give itself the best possible position in the MLS Cup playoffs.
“We want to win the last two games,” Porter said. “We want to get the two seed a minimum. We feel like we have a good chance to do that, which makes it worth going for it.”