On Nov. 10, 2020, the Columbus Crew was in the midst of preparing for a postseason run that would lead to the club’s second ever MLS Cup championship. After a 2-1 Decision Day win against Atlanta United, the Crew finished in third place in the Eastern Conference prior to wins against the New York Red Bulls, Nashville SC, the New England Revolution and the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final.
It was a good time to be among the Black & Gold.
This year on Nov. 10, the mood was much different. Despite finishing the regular season on a three-match winning streak, Columbus did not make the MLS Cup playoffs. Instead of planning intense training sessions ahead of the postseason, head coach Caleb Porter was involved in exit interviews with his players before the team leaves for the offseason.
“When you don’t reach your goals and you’re in a club like we are with high standards and expectations, then we have to own the fact that we didn’t have a good year based on our goals,” Porter said when meeting with the media last week. “So we own that.”
Coming into the season, it was hard to imagine the Crew not taking part in the MLS Cup playoffs for the second time in three seasons. This was a championship-winning side with most of its core pieces returning.
After one of MLS’s best defenses in 2020 carried the team to the MLS Cup title, Porter and president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko made aggressive offseason moves, adding veterans Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino to complement the attack. Other players were brought in to help with the depth the team knew it would need, playing in multiple competitions in 2021.
Despite the experience and talent on the roster — some national analysts believed it to be the best team on paper in MLS history entering the year — the season didn’t go as planned.
The Crew was knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the quarterfinals by Monterrey. The Black & Gold struggled early on in the MLS season, with just one win in the first five matches and the team never could recover.
While there were a number of reasons one could point to for why Columbus finished one point back of the final MLS Cup playoff spot, Porter looks back at a stretch of games from late July through much of August where the Crew lost six in a row as the major factor.
Even bringing home a trophy, the Campeones Cup won in September, wasn’t enough to alter the mood of missing the postseason.
“Not getting a couple of results derailed us,” the head coach said. “You have to be able, in a six-game stretch, to get one win. Had we got one win, we’d be in the playoffs... But at the end of the day, it is a bottom-line business and it doesn’t matter.”
Coming into that mid-summer run of games, the Black & Gold had a 6-3-6 record, were on a six-match unbeaten run and in a good position in the Eastern Conference standings. But a 4-1 loss to New York City FC, where Columbus was dominated at Yankee Stadium, followed by back-to-back home defeats to D.C. United and Atlanta United saw the Crew drop down the table.
This form came during a period of time during international call-ups that saw an already depleted team stripped down to bare bones. Injuries, which started before the season kicked off, were compounded by key players being away with their national teams.
“You look at where we fell short, we fell short in that stretch in the middle part of the year,” Porter said. “And in evaluating that stretch, we had a lot of injuries. That’s not an excuse, we had a lot of injuries. We had third-string players playing in a couple positions. So is that anyone’s fault when you get to a third in a position? I don’t know if your roster’s ever deep enough for that.”
Without key pieces, such as forward Gyasi Zardes, central midfielder Artur or center backs Josh Williams or Vito Wormgoor, available, Porter could have changed the team’s approach to the game. The playing style and tactics could have been altered more to fit Eric Hurtado, Marlon Hairston and Aboubacar Keita, who stepped into key roles.
That did not happen, something Porter takes responsibility for.
“At the end of the day, my reflection is I could have put those guys in better positions,” he said, “been a little bit more pragmatic, dropped my lines off a little bit, played not necessarily the way I want to play but a way that suits the group we had playing. Not have them on the ball quite as much. Not have them pressing in open spaces quite as much. Because 11 goals (conceded) in three games, I don’t care who’s playing, that’s not good enough.”
While the Crew did play better after, even in the three losses coming out of the stretch, the damage was done. Getting points in six of the next nine games kept the Black & Gold’s hopes of repeating at MLS Cup champions alive, but a 2-1 home loss to the Red Bulls on Oct. 23 was pretty much the nail in the coffin.
Even the three-game winning streak to end the season wasn’t enough.
“It’s bittersweet because it makes it harder and it makes it easier,” Porter said of those final three results. “It makes it harder because you know you were that close, you know you were playing extremely well. I kept thinking in my head, ‘Well, we won the last three games in a row. It’s the three games prior to that…’ That makes it harder because you’re like, ‘We did everything we could do to get in.’ But it also makes it easier because you know that you’re on track and you can, honestly, in your reflection, see a lot of bright spots and hope and a lot of signs that that last part was why we won a championship.”
Now begins an important offseason for Columbus. While the Crew doesn’t expect wholesale changes to be made, some needed adjustments must come. Porter identified the winger position as an area where the Black & Gold needs more offensive production. The team must also determine why there were so many issues with players and add higher-quality depth to step in when starters do miss time.
The Crew was the oldest team in MLS in 2021 and while Bezbatchenko pointed to age helping to win in MLS when this was brought to his attention earlier this year, Porter admitted that, in hindsight, the team could have used some extra youth. Porter also referenced “chemistry” and continuing “to cultivate new leadership” as focuses over the offseason.
“All those things will be discussed and talked about and changed and corrected,” Porter said. “And I’m very confident that we’re going to bounce back in a big way.”
Winning a championship, in any sport, is hard. Repeating as champions, as the Black & Gold discussed coming into the season, is harder. In the span of just over a year, Columbus has been to the mountaintop and come crashing back down.
Porter and the Crew have learned from the mistakes of 2021 and are already in the process of bettering this team for next season in order to avoid the disappointments of this year.