In 25 seasons of awarding an MLS Cup champion, the Columbus Crew is in a category all its own. Not only did the Black & Gold have the largest margin of victory in a championship game, defeating the Seattle Sounders 3-0 last December, but they also have a less popular claim to fame. The Crew was the first MLS Cup winner to lift the trophy, or even make it to the MLS Cup Final, without a single away win in the regular season.
The updated MLS Cup playoffs format of 2019 got rid of the home/away aggregate playoff matches for a one-game, win-and-advance format. In sport, anything can happen in any given game. Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union and second-place Toronto FC know all about this phenomenon after both teams lost their first playoff matches to the eighth- and seventh-seeded teams respectively.
Lady luck gave Columbus a direct route to hosting the MLS Cup Final without ever having to pack an away bag, and on Dec. 12, 2020, the team sent historic Crew Stadium out with a bang.
League-wide, home teams had a big advantage in 2020. Only four teams out of 26 had a winning record on the road, those were Toronto, the New England Revolution, Sporing Kansas City and the Colorado Rapids. Because of COVID-19 league protocols, most matches had the away side traveling the day of the game. In prior seasons, players and coaches had the added luxury of time to adjust to their environment. Minus the two October matches where the Black & Gold traveled to Texas the day prior to draws against FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo, the Crew entered its opponents’ cities the same day the team played.
This certainly made it more difficult on visiting teams, as the numbers show, but Columbus did still manage five draws away from home, tied for the most in Major League Soccer. For head coach Caleb Porter, a big reason for the lack of wins was the number of matches.
“If we had seven more road games, do you think we’d get a couple wins? Yeah, I believe we would,” said Porter last week.
And he has a point. Only playing 10 road matches meant fewer opportunities to earn that elusive road win. And while the Crew didn’t earn three points in a road match in 2020, the team did keep games close, only losing by more than one goal once, in Hartford, Connecticut against Toronto, 3-1.
While MLS is yet to release a 2021 schedule, we do know the Black & Gold will only play three or four home games before the new downtown Columbus stadium opens in July. That gives the Crew a chance to start strong on the road this season after last year’s 0-5-5 record away from home.
We also know that Columbus will open the 2021 campaign away from home on Thursday, April 8 in the when they face Real Esteli in Nicaragua in the Round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League. This is a situation where getting a result on the road is important before the home leg a week later.
Porter, of course, wants Columbus to start the season strong, but also wasn’t overly concerned with his championship team’s road record in 2020.
“Points are points,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you win.” Porter lives by the adage that “the best teams win at home and steal some wins on the road.”
Going back to a 34-match schedule means that the Crew is going to need to continue the team’s strong home form from last year — 9-1-0 in the regular season — but also needs to make sure that some of the road draws of 2020 can become wins in 2021. MLS will remove four teams from the playoff structure this year, allowing just 14 instead of 2020’s 18 teams, meaning road points could be even more important.
“We do have to take care of business at home at the old MAPFRE,” said Porter. “We gotta win those games too but I think the guys are motivated to win on the road and show we’re a good team.”