It was roughly 72 hours prior to arguably the biggest game in the history of the Columbus Crew — it was certainly in the top three — on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 10 when the shocking news broke that would change the landscape of the fixture. Two of the Crew’s biggest stars, midfielder Darlington Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos tested positive for COVID-19 and would miss the match that both players worked tirelessly for months to reach. It was a devastating blow not only to head coach Caleb Porter and the players but the entire team and city of Columbus.
For Nagbe, a Cleveland-native and long time admirer of the Black & Gold who had already won two prior MLS Cups, this was a blow. For Santos, a long time Designated Player for the Crew who stuck with Columbus through thick and thin and multiple regime changes since his arrival from Portugal, it was cataclysmic.
“After such a long and tough season, I’m gutted to not be able to play in the final on Saturday with the team,” Nagbe wrote in a tweet the night after he confirmed his positive test.
Santos, a much quieter player in his own right off the pitch, didn’t say much after his positive test. On the morning of the MLS Cup, he posted a picture on Instagram of the team huddled at midfield with the caption, “Together we rise let’s go fellas let’s make history”
The Portuguese winger was the hungrier of the sidelined duo for a trophy with his last piece of silverware being the Portuguese Cup in 2016 with Braga FC prior to his move to central Ohio. He had also won the Romanian Cup in 2014 with Astra Giurgiu. Nagbe was already a two-time MLS Cup winner in 2015 (Portland Timbers) and in 2018 (Atlanta United), but Santos was still looking to establish himself with a championship in the United States.
Opportunities at silverware for Santos have come and gone in Columbus. In his first year in 2017, the Crew reached the Eastern Conference Finals before losing in heartbreaking fashion to Toronto FC. In 2018, it was a conference semifinals elimination at the hands of the New York Red Bulls. While 2019 was a failure despite making the Round of 16 in the U.S. Open Cup, 2020 provided a fresh slate with legitimate bids at the MLS is Back Tournament and the Supporters’ Shield. The Black & Gold failed to capture either trophy.
Although the absences of the two starters, who combined for 3,041 minutes, seven goals and nine assists during the regular season seemed insurmountable at the time, Columbus was able to defeat the Seattle Sounders 3-0 in a historic MLS Cup Final which secured the clubs first major trophy in 11 years. Neither of the two players were in attendance but soaked in the victory at their respective homes with family members.
“Once [(my wife and I) started to watch the game outside, all the nerves kind of went away,” Nagbe reflected recently. “We were controlling the game, Lucas (Zelarayan) was doing his thing, the backline was solid with Eloy (Room) and Aidan (Morris) doing his thing as well. I would say there were more nerves before it and I always thought about, ‘How am I going to feel not being apart of it?” but I feel just as if I did play the game. Considering everything we went through all year, I’m glad they were able to do it without me and Pedro.”
Nagbe led all of MLS in passing accuracy at 94.2 percent in 2020, well ahead of his closest competition, Nashville SC’s Anibal Godov (91.9) and Houston Dynamo’s Matias Vera (91.7). He also won the league’s AT&T Goal of the Year for the second time in his career with his volleyed effort off the post against Chicago Fire in a 3-0 win on Aug. 20.
Meanwhile, Santos is coming off of a very productive season in his own right, tallying eight goals and seven assist across 26 total appearances for the Black & Gold in 2020. Aside from Jonathan Mensah, and despite being 32 years old, he was the only other Crew player to start in every game he appeared in, going 22 for 22.
Fast forward to today and the opening fixture of the 2021 season is less than 24 hours away. This is a Black & Gold side that still has much to prove and build upon after a successful and eventful 2020 season and Nagbe and Santos look very ready to reclaim their key roles and ready to help lead the charge. With the CONCACAF Champions League kicking off against Real Esteli tonight and the Campeones Cup Final later in the season, chances to contribute to major honors isn’t going anywhere for the duo after missing the MLS Cup Final in December.
“He missed one game (MLS Cup), it’s not like he missed the whole year,” Porter said about Nagbe. “Missing one game doesn’t change the body of work it takes to winning a championship. He feels good about our team winning it last year, feels good about the team this year and is hungry to win another one.”