Columbus Crew SC fans enjoyed the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament likely more than any supporters in the league. They got to watch the Black & Gold dominate their in-state rival in FC Cincinnati and defeat two of Major League Soccer’s more successful teams over the last few years.
It was a perfect 3-0 record to win Group E, which saw the Crew score seven goals and record three straight shutouts. Columbus was the only team in the MLS is Back Tournament to register all nine points, which count toward the regular season standings, and not to concede a goal.
Like the fans, the Black & Gold are pleased with what the team accomplished through the first three games of the tournament and head coach Caleb Porter made sure the players took time to appreciate their success.
“We’re very proud of that,” Porter said on a video conference from Orlando on Sunday. “I told the players that yesterday; I don’t want to brush over that.
“I wanted to make note of it with my team because we’re the only team, after four months of being out, to come in here and get all nine points. And I think that says everything about our hunger and of course what the guys did during the time before coming in here, obviously our staff as well.”
Winning Group E is something to be proud of but it was more the Crew’s three wins that excited the team. While it is unclear what is to come after the tournament, the hope is some form of a shortened regular season. Three wins and those nine points from the group stage set the Black & Gold up to be in a good position if and when a regular season does resume.
Add the four points — a 1-0-1 record — Columbus accumulated prior to the coronavirus pandemic hiatus and the Crew sit on top of the Supporters’ Shield standings with a league-best 13 points through five games.
“That was the goal coming in,” Porter said of the 3-0 group record. “Our No. 1 priority is to win MLS Cup. To win MLS Cup we need to get back to the playoffs and those three games we knew were points that would add up and put us in a position when we get back towards that goal.”
With the group stage in the books, the Crew turns the attention to the knockout rounds, specifically Round of 16 opponent Minnesota United.
After a week since the last group game against Atlanta United, the Black & Gold had plenty of time to recalibrate and prepare for the Loons. Because of the win-or-go-home nature of the rest of MLS is Back, this takes a change in approach from Columbus.
“Coming in, we didn’t think about the tournament. We thought about the first three games,” Porter said. “And then we knew once we got out (of the group) that we would shift gears into a four-game tournament. And so our guys are very locked in on that now. They understand our record is 0-0. We have to be 4-0 at the end of the tournament to win it.”
The question from fans of late, though, is how focused the Crew will be on winning the MLS is Back Tournament. While the group stage results counted toward the regular season, the only team taking anything home from here on out is the one who wins it. That team will receive $1.1 million in prize money and a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.
Prior to the start of the tournament, Porter referred to the knockout round as being similar to the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that doesn’t always get full attention from MLS sides. But without any MLS regular season games to worry about, the Crew will have the team’s full focus on winning these games.
“When you look at the Open Cup, what’s on the end of it? A trophy and there’s CCL and there’s prize money,” Porter said. “So why is this any different? In Open Cup games, we try to win those games. We try to win that tournament. We give everything we have to win those tournaments. So I don’t know why anybody would take that comment and think we’re not trying to win the tournament.
“It’s just not a normal situation when you have league games and points in those first three and so ultimately I was really clear and I think it’s important that everybody understands that you have to approach it in two different ways. We compartmentalize the first three games because those lead into the regular season and that is our No. 1 goal. We’re not shy about that. Our No. 1 goal is MLS Cup, getting back to the playoffs. But also, just like in Open Cup, we want to win that too. And so we want to win this next game, we want to advance and we want to win the tournament.”
What will be the biggest indicator of the Black & Gold’s emphasis on winning MLS is Back is what type of lineup Porter deploys against United on Tuesday night. While there have been a number of injuries for Columbus — central defender Vito Wormgoor is out for the tournament, goalkeeper Eloy Room and winger Younesss Mokhtar are not expected to play against Minnesota and other players have dealt with more minor injuries — there is still enough of the group available to put out a strong starting 11.
If the Crew wants to make a push and win the tournament, as both Porter and players have stated, the best players who are fit will be on the field on Tuesday.
“Good clubs, it doesn’t matter what the trophy is, you put it in the trophy case,” Porter said. “You’ve got to put things in the trophy case and this club hasn’t done that enough in the last 10 years. We’re mindful of that. We’re humble with that as well. But of course the players, myself, we want to leave a legacy here where we’re putting trophies in the trophy case. So any trophy, we’re going to go for it.”
Given the uncertainty of the remainder of the 2020 season, it would be hard to justify not pushing for the MLS is Back title. If games are played, teams are expected to get time off after the tournament to recover. If, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more games don’t occur, the MLS is Back crown could be the only championship awarded this year.
According to Porter, the Crew’s plan is to be adding a trophy to the case in early August.
“Every round there are going to be more and more teams leaving the bubble and our goal is to keep fighting and giving everything we have for this club each and every game from this point forward,” he said. “And of course we want to be the last team standing here in the bubble with a trophy.”