The Columbus Crew left Sunday’s 0-0 season-opening draw against the Philadelphia Union disappointed. In previous years, getting a point against last season’s Supporters’ Shield winners with most of its pieces back to begin a new campaign may have felt like a positive, but most previous years the Crew wasn’t the defending MLS Cup champion.
“A draw is a disappointment at home, it always is, even when you’re playing last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners,” Black & Gold head coach Caleb Porter said after the game. “If we’re disappointed drawing the Supporters’ Shield winners last year then that means that we’ve raised the bar and our standards are very high.”
Porter is right. Last season, both Columbus’ regular season and postseason success were based on wins at home. The Crew went 9-1 at historic Crew Stadium in the regular season and 4-0 at home in the MLS Cup playoffs on the way to the club’s second league title.
Included in that home success were the Black & Gold’s two wins against the Union in the two meetings of the shortened season. Both were tight games defined by the Crew taking advantage of specific moments for a winning goal. This year’s game was not dissimilar, there was just no winning goal.
“We’re disappointed that we weren’t able to reward our supporters, the Nordecke, with three points because we’re very passionate about being a good home team, entertaining, scoring goals and winning,” Porter said after the draw. “And we know to win games you have to be a good defensive team but we talk a lot about being a good attacking team and that balance and being aggressive and creating chances and scoring goals and we didn’t do that today.”
On one end, both teams leaned on what was their strength last season and undoubtedly will be again in 2021. Philadelphia and Columbus were the two best defensive teams in Major League Soccer respectively last year and looked the part again in the season opener at historic Crew Stadium. Both defenses were able to stifle each other at times and when they did get shots on goal (six for the Crew, five for the Union), two of the league’s top goalkeepers — Philadelphia’s Andre Blake and the Black & Gold’s Eloy Room — were there to make saves.
For Columbus, the defense is expected to be once again a staple of the team in 2021. Through three games of this year — two against Real Esteli in the CONCACAF Champions League — the Crew is yet to concede a goal.
Where Porter and his team were disappointed in the first MLS game of the year was on the offensive end.
“We never were able to play the football that we play,” the head coach said. “And I thought we didn’t play the point of attack enough. Against their system, you have to find space on the weak side and we weren’t able to rotate the ball and circulate it enough times. Every time we did, we were able to move up the field and find space but we just didn’t do it enough.”
Offense typically takes longer to click than defense to start a season and, despite the Champions League games, the Black & Gold were just over six weeks into 2021 against the Union. Columbus was also without a key piece in central midfield with Darlington Nagbe, who often helps circulate the ball and create those attacks Porter mentioned, out with an injury.
In addition to missing Nagbe’s passing and ball control, the Crew was a bit more defensive without the Ohio native. While Perry Kitchen stepped in and performed well, he is more of a true defensive midfielder, putting an even bigger burden on the Black & Gold’s attacking players.
Despite not being at their best, however, the Crew had chances to take advantage of opportunities, seize that moment and win the game.
“There were moments,” Porter said. “Obviously you saw the play on Pedro (Santos). That was, for me, a moment. You had the crossbar shot from Lucas (Zelarayan); another moment late in the half. The one where I think it was Lucas who crossed it to Gyasi (Zardes) in on goal, it would have been a breakaway and that’s a goal. If that doesn’t go under his foot, he takes a touch and we win 1-0.”
As the defending MLS Cup champions, Columbus knew the team was marked this year and that it will get every opponent’s best shot. While that’s not going to change no matter who the Crew faces, the Union, a group that felt the MLS Cup was coming to Philadelphia for the first time in 2020 after finishing with the best record in the league, had even extra incentive to spoil the Black & Gold’s opening day.
“It’s a part of the challenge when you’re champions,” Porter said. “I’ve been through this and you only know it if you’ve been through it because you keep getting celebrated, everybody calls you the champ every time you play, even when it’s game 32.
“When you are a team that wins trophies, what you have to manage, because you’re going to get every team’s best punch. You’re going to have every team wanting to beat you more than ever. So you have to be able to manage that target on your back. You have to elevate your game. You have to show up for 90-plus minutes every single game. If you don’t, every team is motivated to beat you when you were the champions last year.”
With a week and a half off before the next game, the Crew will spend time working on improving on what the team saw from its first really competitive match since December. The defense, it appears, picked up where it left off last season while the offense still looks for its rhythm and cohesiveness.
But the biggest takeaway from Sunday is that no matter the opponent, even if it was the best team in MLS a year ago, the expectation is to win the game at home and, even in a relatively good performance overall, a draw doesn’t leave the Crew feeling content. That’s the mentality of a champion and one the Black & Gold must maintain throughout 2021.