When Columbus Crew SC first learned of the MLS is Back Tournament as Major League Soccer’s return-to-play model, the team planned on training in Columbus for as long as possible before heading to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida to join the league’s “bubble.” The Crew, which began full team training on June 12 after the coronavirus pandemic postponed the season in mid-March, believed that was the best course of action.
The initial “tentative” plan, as it was described to Massive Report, was to wait until seven days before the Black & Gold’s first game, then depart for Orlando to continue preparations for the tournament on-site.
Those plans have already changed. According to head coach Caleb Porter, the Crew and its 45-47-person team will depart for Orlando on June 28, nearly two full weeks prior to the team’s first group stage game against FC Cincinnati on July 11.
The reason for this change is simple. After spending since mid-March navigating tricky situations to keep the team ready for a return, the Crew wants to be as prepared as possible to return to play. Porter and his staff believe it is important for the success of the team to play at least one friendly game before resuming full competition. In order to do that, Columbus must be on the Wide World of Sports campus for at least a week.
Update (June 26 11:04 a.m.): The Crew announced two 90-minute scrimmages against Minnesota United.
“Normally (in preseason), you’re getting six, seven friendlies,” Porter told Massive Report. “Inter-squad (scrimmages) are just not enough for me; I think you need at least one opponent. I think that makes a big difference. Because, when you look at inter-squads, you don’t game plan for those. So you need an opponent to game plan for.
“And you also, I think, psychologically, you just need to be in a game, especially with this COVID and the psychology of it, we need to be playing against someone else. Marking guys and there are little things that we just have to do. And so we’re going in earlier but we’re doing it because we feel like we need that game. We need a little friendly game before we proceed.”
From the beginning of the pandemic hiatus, the Black & Gold have handled the situation well. The Crew coaching and medical staff were in constant contact with players who had apps that monitored and recorded their workouts, both individually and on video conferences. For players that needed extra equipment, given their living situation, the team found ways to get what was required to them.
Nutrition was maintained, psychology was considered. All done in order to have the players ready to return to the field of play when possible.
“In our market, our guys have been doing a lot. They’ve been on a grass field every day, running and doing technical work on their own and then doing strength sessions,” Porter said last month.
In early May, MLS permitted players to return to team facilities for individual, voluntary workouts. While this wasn’t an ideal practice scenario, as players and coaches weren’t even allowed to pass each other the ball, it was a start and provided a mental boost for the team.
After a couple of weeks, MLS teams were permitted to begin small group training, which broke up the monotony of conditioning exercises with functional drills and unit work. As Porter put it, however, “it’s still not the game.”
Finally on June 4, MLS allowed teams that could get local approval to return to full team training and just over a week later, the Crew was back to as close to normal as the team had been in three months.
“It was long and it wasn’t easy and we had to be creative and we had to think outside the box,” Porter admitted. “We had to make sure the players, that push, pull and how much we push them. We could have just had them show up and run every day, but we’re not going to do that because you’re gonna lose the players. So it was really delicate and I think we’ll see. The proof will be in the pudding this year, but I think we got it right from a statement and a mental standpoint.”
All of this was done with the return-to-play model in mind. Being back in full team training on June 12 gave the Black & Gold four weeks to get ready for games to resume in a cliff notes version of the team’s normal preseason.
With the fitness side of things out of the way, due to how the players and staff handled the month and a half away from the facility and the individual and small group training, Columbus turned the attention back to tactics and preparing for how the team wants to play.
“What we’ve done is we’ve basically gone back to our tactical periodization model, which we follow in preseason,” Porter explained. “And we’re kind of going back through the first several weeks and kind of reestablishing, restimulating.
“It’s weird because the six weeks we had to build, so it’s coming back a lot quicker. But we’re just reestablishing our game model and our style of play and our philosophy and how we want to play and win games. So this week’s the attack, next week’s defending… We’ll do inter-squad (scrimmages) every Friday and then we’ll have a week in Orlando before playing a friendly match.”
From the outset of this lapse in play, the Crew’s focus has been on being the most prepared team when the games resume. How the players and staff handled the time away from the facility was one example, but everything the team has done since then is setting up for a successful remainder to the 2020 season, including the MLS is Back Tournament.
The Black & Gold’s friendly — which will actually be two 90-minute scrimmages against the same opponent — is the culmination of that plan which should give the team an edge against some other MLS side.
“There’s gonna be a good amount of teams that aren’t getting any friendlies in,” the head coach said. “They’re just building their squads until they play the first game. So we talked a lot about this. And we just decided that the friendly is massive and we feel like it’s going to be an advantage to play that game.”