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‘Humbling’ and perplexing defeat won’t change belief in the Crew

Caleb Porter was struggling to figure out what went wrong in the second half Sunday but believes in his team.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first 14 matchdays of the 2020 Major League Soccer season, Columbus Crew SC looked the class of the league. The Black & Gold went undefeated in the team’s first six games and then put together another six-game unbeaten run. And while there were two disappointing draws at FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire and the 1-0 loss on the road to New York City FC, the Crew sat atop the Supporters’ Shield and Eastern Conference standings entering the game against Toronto FC in East Hartford, Connecticut on Sunday.

Even through the first 45 minutes of the contest against TFC, Columbus looked superior to a side that played in three of the last four MLS Cup Finals and sat just five points back in the standings. But after entering the locker room leading 1-0 at halftime thanks to a Chris Mavinga own goal, the wheels came off for the Crew.

“Obviously a very disappointing result,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the surprising 3-1 defeat to Toronto. “Humbling in a lot of ways. I think what’s the most disappointing is how well we played in the first half and then how poor we played in the second half. And I don’t know what changed.”

What changed came from the Toronto side. After a disappointing first half performance in which the Black & Gold controlled the game and could have been up more than just one goal, TFC head coach Greg Vanney switched from the 4-2-3-1 formation the team lined up in to start the game to a more familiar 4-1-2-1-2.

This change moved Ayo Akinola to his more preferred forward spot alongside Jozy Altidore and allowed the veteran American striker to roam more and not have to be the sole head of the attack. It also allowed the Reds to pressure higher up the field, making it more difficult for the Crew to possess the ball and build attacks like in the first half.

In addition, Toronto upped the intensity. Playing against the first place team in MLS, the reigning Eastern Conference champions had the motivation to prove this group hasn’t been knocked off its mantle yet. The approach changed and everything worked.

“We just needed a reset,” Vanney said after the game, “and we needed to not be our own worst enemy on the field and we needed to move proactively and to stay connected and be positive to get from one place to the next play. That was a big part of it to be honest and the guys took a deep breath. They came out and they reconnected and went after it. Obviously, we made some tactical adjustments in what we were doing. I think those obviously give us a good structure to work with, but it doesn’t matter what the structure is if your mind’s not in the right place.”

Columbus’ response was poor. For the first time all season, the Black & Gold were hit in the mouth by a team with equal talent and the visiting side did not respond well.

“They raised their level in the second half and they’re a very good team and they have very good players. And unfortunately, when they raised their level, we didn’t cope,” Porter admitted. “We didn’t play through their pressure and we kept giving the ball away and then we were in a cycle of just being back-foot, low-block and that was definitely not the plan.”

Toronto’s goal three minutes into the second stanza was a perfect example of the change in tactics working and TFC having the firepower to get back in the game. Altidore pulled away from the backline despite a ball into the penalty box, resulting in a wide-open pass from Alejandro Pozuelo. Being a U.S. National Team forward, Altidore finished with ease from the top of the 18-yard box, something not many strikers the Crew has faced this year could do.

The unraveling continued when wingback Richie Laryea again turned provider from Columbus’ left side and found another red shirt free at the top of the penalty box for the go-ahead goal. The third goal came again from that left side, this time as Laryea went by Milton Valenzuela and Pedro Santos before a tough-angle shot beat both Josh Williams and goalkeeper Eloy Room.

Porter, a coach who generally likes to explain why a game went one way or the other, had no explanation for the Crew’s second half performance.

“I did not see this coming,” the head coach said. “I’ll have to rewatch it. I’ll have to see how we went into the tailspin, because that’s pretty much what happened. We seemed like we went into a complete tailspin.”

In a game like this, after being dominant in nearly every game this season, it’s only natural to look for excuses. And the absence of Darlington Nagbe, whose possession certainly would have made a major difference in the midfield, and the three games in nine days are both legit reasons why the Black & Gold weren’t as good in the second half. But Columbus isn’t falling back on those.

“Our group doesn’t want to make excuses either,” Porter said. “Because Toronto also played a midweek game. And so there’s two teams that are in the same situation. So they have some guys as well. I mean Michael Bradley’s out in the center of the park. So there’s no excuse for it.”

In reality, this was a bad second half for the Crew, without question the worst of the year, and one that cost the team another three points and ended the six-game unbeaten run. It’s a game that, after the team’s two off days on Monday and Tuesday, will be analyzed and then forgotten.

But Porter isn’t giving up faith, despite a perplexing performance, and expects his side to be ready to go Saturday against FC Dallas, looking again like MLS’s best team.

“We’ll of course, like we always do analyze it and we’ll make some corrections,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll be better for it, I’m confident that we will. It’s not like we’ve shown this in other games. So for me, I look at it as this is an outlier.”