When Major League Soccer returned to play with the MLS is Back Tournament, Columbus Crew SC was not widely thought of as one of the teams to make it out of Group E after being drawn with Atlanta United, the New York Red Bulls and in-state rivals FC Cincinnati. The Crew certainly wasn’t a favorite to win the tournament before early July.
But after an undefeated run through the group where the team managed three clean sheets, the only MLS team to do so, the Black & Gold are becoming a heavy favorite to take home the first MLS is Back title.
Opening the tournament with a convincing win in the Hell is Real Derby was not a surprise, but a 4-0 victory against Cincinnati at least put the rest of the league on alert that either Columbus had improved or FC Cincy was just as bad as last year. The Crew went on to play the Red Bulls, adding to their positive goal differential with a convincing 2-0 win. That victory helped secure a spot in the Round of 16, so the final group game didn’t really matter. But the Black & Gold still went out and defeated one of the league’s darlings in Atlanta 1-0 and sent the Five Stripes home.
The Crew’s next opponent, Minnesota United, went 1-0-2 in group play and finished in second place in Group D. While some believe this could lead to an interesting matchup between cross-conference foes, Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath isn’t sure there’s a need to play the game with all the hype surrounding the Black & Gold lately.
“Well, we probably won’t turn up because everybody’s crowned them champions already,” said Heath in his post-game press conference after Minnesota drew the Colorado Rapids 2-2 on Wednesday night. “Maybe we’ll give it to them.”
Heath, who has expressed his appreciation for Columbus head coach Caleb Porter in the past, made this comment in jest, but the fact that he can make these comments at all goes to show what the Crew has accomplished in this tournament.
After rarely playing on national television, fans, pundits and opposing coaches have all seen the rebuild Porter and his staff have accomplished this offseason. Additions over the last year such as Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, Luis Diaz and Youness Mokhtar made the starting 11 formidable and the team now has the depth to battle through the ups and downs of the season.
“We know they’re a very good team, they’re well-coached, they’ve got good individuals, spent a lot of money on a lot of players. And they’ve been very impressive,” Heath continued on the Crew. “But I also know that Caleb will have enough respect for this group to know that it’s not going to be as probably as easy as a lot of people out there think.”
The game against Minnesota will provide former Columbus winger Ethan Finlay a chance to go against his old team. Due to injuries and the schedule, Finlay has only played his former club once since being traded midway through 2017, a 1-0 win for United last season in which he scored the winning goal. He won’t need any help getting motivated for this contest and believes his team can beat the Black & Gold.
“It’s a former team of mine. I’ve got some former teammates that play for that team so I won’t need anymore to get up for that game,” he said. “They’ve been one of the better teams throughout this tournament. It’s a great test for us. We’re a club that has great aspirations and we’re playing a team that is, I think, probably in the Supporters’ Shield lead right now, if I remember correctly.”
Chase Gasper, who sat alongside Finlay in the postgame press conference, said that a lot of teams and players tuned into the Columbus matches so far in the tournament.
“They’ve been playing some great soccer and they’re a great team,” the left-back said. “At some point in the tournament, you’re gonna have to play the best — whether it’s Columbus or any other team — we’re going to come out swinging.”
The game will be a challenge for both sides as the Crew hopes to continue its hot start to the MLS is Back Tournament while Minnesota looks to knock off MLS’s hottest team and move on to the quarterfinals.