The last three and a half months have been tricky for Columbus Crew SC. Navigating the six weeks where the players couldn’t be at the facility and had to work out from home was difficult, to say the least. Then the coaching staff had to figure out how to do individual workouts followed by small group training, or as head coach Caleb Porter put it, “not the game.”
Now able to do full team training, the Crew feels confident that the team’s approach during the hiatus will yield positive results. But how will Columbus handle the return to play?
Unlike many other soccer leagues around the world, Major League Soccer isn’t simply picking up where the season left off. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the league will return with all of its teams in Orlando, Florida for a World-cup style tournament dubbed “MLS is Back.” Like in the World Cup, teams were divided into groups with group stage games counting toward regular season points. The top teams in the groups advance to the knockout stage with $1.1 million and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League awarded to the winner.
Given the unique nature of this tournament’s format, teams are likely to handle the MLS is Back Tournament differently. The Crew’s approach may come as a surprise.
Despite wanting to win the tournament, Porter, who has coached in similar style tournaments with the U.S. youth national team, is taking a big-picture approach with an eye on a likely 18- to 22-game regular season conclusion following MLS is Back.
“I really look at it as, it’s a regular season with three games and then it’s an Open Cup for CCL,” he told Massive Report. “I don’t look at it as one tournament. Because if you think about it, the seven games aren’t the same in terms of what it counts for. So we want to get out of the group, but we want to get out of the group because we’ve got as many points as possible, not because we managed the three teams in the tournament to get out.”
While some teams may prioritize the first two group games over the third, attempting to secure passage to the knockout round as quickly as possible, the Black & Gold want to be successful in all three. After getting four points from the opening two games of the MLS regular season prior to the postponement, Columbus would love to add nine additional points to the team’s total for when the season resumes.
“Our number one goal is to win MLS Cup,” Porter explained. “So the first three games are the most important thing.”
This approach comes into play when setting lineups for the first three games. Teams that are focused on advancing in the tournament might rest players in the third group game if they have already clinched qualification. For Porter and the Crew, that third game means just as much because it’s another chance for three points.
But there is another thing to consider when it comes to lineups, and that’s fitness. While Columbus’ players did a good job of staying on course with exercise plans while at home and the team worked hard the last two months to be ready to go come the first game of the tournament against FC Cincinnati on July 11, running on the street and training is not the same as playing a 90-minute competitive soccer game in Orlando’s summer.
And while the Black & Gold will play two 90-minute friendlies against Minnesota United after arriving in Florida, those scrimmages, while important, aren’t quite the same as a real game.
This means the lineup in Game 1 may not be the team’s full first-choice group, but rather as close to it as the Crew can get while playing those who are most capable of competing for 90 minutes. And with a more congested schedule — Columbus plays games five days apart instead of the typical six or seven — balancing minutes for players to avoid exhaustion or injuries will be a key part of the planning.
“What you can’t do is go for the first game when you have guys that aren’t ready to play because you’ve only had three weeks (to train), and then have two or three injuries and now you’re screwed up for the second and third game and the rest of the year,” Porter said. “So we really have to be smart in that first game and play guys that we know are match fit and we’re not risking injury.
“That first game, you’re probably going to see guys that we feel are the most physically ready to manage that game. Because we can’t be playing guys that perhaps might not be ready to manage 90 minutes.”
What will help all MLS teams is the increase in substitutes. Like leagues resuming play around the world, MLS will permit teams five subs, up from the normal three, and a nine-man bench, increased from seven. However, teams can only make these five substitutions in three windows, other than halftime, to prevent increased time-wasting.
This will allow for more in-game rotation and more players to get a break than the normal three changes.
“The subs are going to be really important,” Porter said. “The big thing the subs will change is you’re going to see a lot more halftime or 50- to 55-minute subs, earlier subs to manage minutes for players physically. And then that still leaves you two or three tactical subs late in the game for match state, which is really the big benefit of the extra subs.”
Assuming the Crew manages to advance from Group E — which features the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United in addition to Cincinnati — the team will then take part in the knockout round. And while the group stage games are important because of their value to the regular season, the Black & Gold won’t take these knockout games lightly, just smartly.
Like in the group stage, planning lineups and substitutions for the knockout round will be about managing players to keep them as fit and healthy as possible.
“Once we get out, hopefully with nine points, or six points, but once we’re out, now we’re playing in an Open Cup for four games to win a CCL,” Porter said. “But none of those games count for the regular season. The only thing that counts is if you win it, you get a CCL. Our number one goal is to win MLS Cup. So the first three games are the most important thing. And then from there, when we get out, we’re basically looking at it like we’re playing an Open Cup to try and win a CCL. Which means, how we approach that will be interesting… We try to win it. But we might manage that stage a little differently.”
If the Open Cup lineups from last season, Porter’s first year in charge of the Crew, are any indication, Columbus is likely to use more rotational players than starters in the knockout round. In two Open Cup games in 2019, which fell during the World Cup break, the Black & Gold rotated considerably, playing a backup goalkeeper, different center backs, a changed midfield group and a reserve forward.
But as Porter said, and president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko made clear, the Crew wants to win the MLS is Back Tournament. The potential of a Champions League spot, a tournament Columbus has not been a part of since 2011, is an enticing prize that will have to be weighed when deciding the lineups.
“What makes it a little trickier is the club hasn’t been in the CCL for nine years. So I think if we’d been a club that had been in the CCL, it’s probably not a big deal at all,” Porter said. “For our club, it is a big deal. So we still want to get that berth if we can but not at the expense of jeopardizing the MLS Cup.”
For Porter and his staff, managing this tournament is going to be important. MLS is confident in playing games once the tournament is complete, meaning the Crew has to balance getting the most out of the group games, managing the knockout round and being ready for the return of regular play.
This might present a headache for Porter but it’s one he will gladly welcome because it means MLS is back and he and his team are back to work.
“I think the best part is, we’re returning to play,” the head coach said. “I mean a couple weeks ago even, a month ago, we didn’t know if we were gonna play yet, we weren’t sure. We didn’t know if we’d have a season. So it’s just almost amazing.”