The Columbus Crew had a stated goal in 2020. After a year of struggles and missing the playoffs in 2019, head coach Caleb Porter and his team believed the group was strong enough to compete for a championship. Despite adversity off the field, the Crew achieved that goal, winning the club’s second MLS Cup title last December.
Now the battle to repeat as champions in 2021 begins and it won’t be easy. For one reason or another winning consecutive MLS Cups is a struggle for nearly every team that has attempted it. That’s why it’s only been done three times in the league’s 25 years of existence.
“We’re very excited to, we’re not going to say defend but attack our next trophy,” Porter said this offseason. “It’s a new year. Obviously, the offseason’s about climbing down the mountain and resetting and then we climb again and we know oftentimes when you win a trophy, the climb’s going to be harder.”
Climbing the metaphorical mountain in back-to-back years is always made more difficult for multiple reasons. First is that the team has already achieved its goal, meaning it’s only human nature to have a letdown. While every team wants to repeat, it’s hard to put in the same work that got a group to the top when the reward of last year remains fresh.
Secondly, every opponent has the game against the champions circled on their schedule. This gives each team Columbus plays this year an extra emphasis to win.
“We talked a lot about those things and that psychology’s really important,” Porter said, “because what I would say is in a league of parity, if you have five percent less hunger and you’re playing an opponent who typically has five percent more hunger to beat the champs every game, that 10 percent swing means a difference that’s not going to be a good difference for you.”
Fortunately, there is experience within the ranks of being a season removed from a championship. Porter’s Portland Timbers defeated the Crew in the 2015 MLS Cup Final. Current Black & Gold president Tim Bezbatchenko was the general manager of Toronto FC when the Canadian side won its first title in 2017. Both teams struggled the following season, failing to make the playoffs after the championship run.
Both Porter and Bezbatchenko learned from those experiences and put together an offseason plan to not let the Crew fall into the same trap as did the Timbers or TFC.
The first part of that plan was to not be complacent when it comes to roster construction. The Black & Gold were MLS’s third-best team based on points in the regular season and managed the postseason to near perfection. There was talent on the roster but Porter and Bezbatchenko wanted to add more.
They did that with the additions of forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, winger Kevin Molino, midfielder Perry Kitchen, defender Marlon Hairston and goalkeeper Evan Bush. All five of these players bring a veteran presence and experience to the team as well as hunger to win their first MLS Cup. Young, exciting players such as playmaker Alexandru Matan and Homegrown midfielder Isaiah Parente were also added to the roster.
The hope is that in addition to providing more talent and depth, these players also create that extra motivation along with the 19 returners from last year’s championship-winning side to work every day in practice and avoid complacency.
“It’s important that we keep adapting and changing even though we won last year,” Porter explained. “You’ve got to keep things stimulating and challenging. It’s really important. You can let stagnation creep in. But I think what helps with that is having some new blood. Having eight new guys brings a little bit of tension to some extent because there’s competition, which is good, healthy. It brings an energy because we’ve got new guys that are wanting to learn.”
The second part of the plan to repeat is mental. While last year will be a season forever celebrated by the club, the Crew has to always strive for more and not rest on its laurels. This means putting last year in the past and focusing on the present.
“The biggest thing is you have to have the right mindset in the season after you win a trophy,” Porter explained. “And if you don’t have the right mindset then you get a little bit of decay in the way that you approach the season and you forget all the things that you did to win that trophy and how you worked, how hungry you were and the process that you took to get there.
“We’re not defending last year’s trophy. It’s a completely new trophy this year. We’re not the champs this year. We were the champs last year. You have to get that out of your head. We won the championship. No one can take it away. That experience and confidence mean we know how to do it again. But whether we do it again will depend on this year; nothing to do with us being the champs last year.”
This message of focusing on this year has been hammered home during preseason. Fortunately, this season already feels different.
Not only does the Crew have eight new players on the roster to help freshen up the group, but the Black & Gold have CONCACAF Champions League — a spot earned thanks to the MLS Cup win — to worry about. Columbus may also be a part of the U.S. Open Cup, a competition that was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This means the Crew won’t just focus on climbing the MLS mountain again but also winning in two other competitions across the course of the season.
“We’re not the champs again. We’re not on top of the mountain where the air’s thin. We’ve gone down. We’re at the bottom of the mountain,” Porter said. “We’re resetting and we understand that path up is going to be a lot harder and maybe it’s not as smooth. But if you know that and you attack the process of getting to the top again and you’re ready for those challenges and you’re really ready to work and dig in just like you did last year, then we have a chance to get back to the top again. But it certainly won’t be easy and you have to understand that if you think it’s going to be easy, you won’t make it.”
Last year, the Black & Gold made it clear the expectation was to win the MLS Cup. The team met that expectation. This year, with experience driving the team’s approach, the Crew set out to become just the fourth team in MLS history to repeat as champions.