Two games played, two draws. That’s two points for the Columbus Crew through the opening two contests of the 2021 Major League Soccer season.
If you asked the defending MLS Cup champions about the start of the year prior to the first game, you would have heard talk of a difficult challenge but one the team hoped it could pass. So far, the jury is still out on this year’s Crew side.
On one hand, you have a team that has shown the quality on both ends of the field that helped win its second league championship last December. In total, the Black & Gold have played five matches and only conceded once. In one of those games, Columbus scored four goals; in another, the team found the back of the net twice.
Yet the record in MLS play is 0-0-2 with no goals conceded but none scored either following Saturday’s second consecutive 0-0 draw in MLS play, this one against CF Montreal in the team’s temporary home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“I’m not pleased with this result,” goalkeeper Eloy Room said on Saturday. “To me, it doesn’t feel like a draw. We have to learn to win these games on the road. I think today, we didn’t play our best game but still, we had some chances. Good teams, they score those chances.”
As mentioned, the Crew knew the start of the campaign would be difficult. Not only is there a newly-placed target on the team’s back after winning the MLS Cup a year ago but that second title in team history meant a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
While some teams, like the Black & Gold, have played just two MLS games, Columbus is set to play its sixth competitive contest in a month on Wednesday when traveling to Mexico to face CF Monterrey in Leg 2 of the Champions League quarterfinals. This has meant balancing league and international competition early in the year.
Columbus isn’t the only team with this challenge. The Philadelphia Union, Atlanta United, the Portland Timbers and Toronto FC are all still alive in Champions League play and have to manage games on two competitive fronts.
In fact, it could be argued that the Crew has handled this challenge the best of the MLS clubs, as the only unbeaten side taking part in the Champions League. MLS teams of the past have seen their league form derailed by putting emphasis in the Champions League and, while the season is still young, it appears the Black & Gold haven’t hurt their chances of competing for the Supporters’ Shield and another MLS Cup.
“Yeah, absolutely. We haven’t lost,” Porter said on Saturday when asked if he feels okay with the results so far this year. “At the end of the day, this stretch, I said it, is going to be the toughest stretch of the year because it’s a lot of road games and we’re having to manage Champions League games. We’re playing a game every two or three days and it’s difficult. Not a lot of prep, you don’t have a lot of recovery.”
With that said, Columbus did not go into either of the first two MLS games playing for a draw. Even with match congestion early in the year, the Crew’s approach didn’t change in league play.
“Obviously we want to win. We play to win. Our mindset is to win,” Porter continued. “We don’t play in a negative way where we’re ever playing for a draw or for a point ever. But this game in particular, again, under the circumstances with a quick turnaround, we have some injuries so we’re a little bit thinner and we have to rotate.”
After a physically and emotionally tough game against Monterrey three days prior, the Black & Gold rotated five players for the game against Montreal. With injuries — both center back Jonathan Mensah and forward Gyasi Zardes were unavailable, as was midfielder Perry Kitchen — and fatigue playing a factor, not to mention the heat at DRV PNK Stadium on Saturday, the performance was far from pleasing on the eye with Columbus uncharacteristically conceding 55.6 percent of possession and getting outshot 20-3.
The positive was a second straight shutout in MLS play which means the team did not lose. The negative is the offense is still trying to find its rhythm when all of the first-team pieces aren’t on the field.
“I think that’s (a shutout) most important because when you don’t let a goal in (you don’t lose), and every game you will get some chances,” center back Vito Wormgoor said after the draw. “Especially with this team, with this quality we have in the team, we’ll get one or two chances. So I think we did not maybe deserve to win today but we still had one or two opportunities.”
The schedule does get easier for the Crew. The Black & Gold have the Champions League game in Mexico, followed by a home match with D.C. United this weekend before going on the road to Toronto — in Orlando — next Wednesday and a trip to the New England Revolution on Sunday. That all will come in the next week and a half.
But after that, Columbus goes to a more traditional schedule, averaging roughly one game per week. If the Crew advances in the Champions League, the first leg of the semifinal won’t take place until August, meaning it will just be MLS play for the foreseeable future. Time to train and recover will go a long way toward turning early-season draws into wins.
The Black & Gold knew the start of the season would be difficult, managing multiple competitions in a short span. But that’s the price you pay when you are the champions, something the team won’t give up.
And with no losses yet on the year and needing just a win to advance to the Champions League semifinals, the Crew could be in a much worse spot in early May.