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Reigning champs: How the Crew shape up to other MLS Cup winners after the first third of the season

Defending a championship is tough, but the Crew is taking it in stride.

MLS: Cup Final-Seattle Sounders FC vs Columbus Crew SC Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew head Caleb Porter said Sunday night that he breaks down the Major League Soccer regular season into thirds, giving him a good chunk of time to analyze how the team performed. And with the first 10 games out of the way, the first third of the season is behind the Black & Gold.

When Porter reflected on these first 10 games, he did so in light of a team coming off winning the MLS Cup champions in 2020. And as he stated in the preseason, it’s not easy being reigning champs. There’s a huge target on the team’s back at all times, and in MLS a trophy means Champion’s League play on top of regular season play.

This in addition, to a rash of injuries, has made it difficult for Columbus, who sit on a 4-3-3 record and are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference after 10 matches, through the first third of the 2021 season.

“But I’m proud of the guys,” Porter said. “That we’re grinding results and getting points against teams that want to beat us.”

Teams traditionally struggle early in seasons following a championship win. But looking at recent years, the Crew is showing what is normal for champion teams in the year following.

Let’s take a look back to see how the Black & Gold compare.

2015 – Reigning champion: LA Galaxy

The Galaxy was coached by Bruce Arena following the team’s fifth MLS Cup title. LA came out of the gates the next year with just one win in the team’s first five games but went the last five undefeated, taking 14 points from the first 10 games. The Galaxy didn’t win on the road but was undefeated at home. LA was knocked out in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League and qualified for the MLS playoffs but failed to make a deep run.

2016 – Reigning champion: Portland Timbers

Coached by Porter and coming off of a victory over the Crew, the 2016 Timbers made it to the group stage of the Champions League but didn’t even qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs following the club’s first MLS Cup title. Through the first 10 games, Portland was all over the place, coming out of them with 12 points in that stretch with the team’s only three wins coming at home.

2017 – Reigning champions: Seattle Sounders

It's undeniable that the Sounders have been the dominant team in MLS in recent years, making it to four of the five last MLS Cup Finals and winning two of those. In 2016, Seattle made its first appearance in the Final. It was a rocky start to the 2017 season for the Sounders. Seattle only won just two of the team’s first 10 games and came out of the first third of the year with 10 points. The Sounders turned things around, however, and made it to the MLS Cup Final again, falling to Toronto FC.

2018 – Reigning champion: Toronto FC

Like many of their predecessors, Toronto FC did not impress in the season following the team’s first MLS Cup victory. In TFC’s first 10 games of 2018, Toronto lost every game on the road and came out with just 10 points. Though the Reds were runners-up in the Champions League, Toronto failed to make the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.

2019 – Reigning champion: Atlanta United

Atlanta performed the best following the team’s championship season of any side on this list, despite it being head coach Frank de Boer’s first year with the squad. Though United didn’t get a win until the team’s fifth game of the season, Atlanta came out of this opening stretch with 17 points and eventually made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League and the conference finals of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

2020 - COVID-19 season

Given how strange the 2020 season was due to the pandemic, it’s unfair to hold the Sounders to the same standard as other teams to begin the year. Because of this, we elected to not include this season in our examination of how defending MLS Cup champions performed to start the next year.

How the 2021 Crew compares

Porter was right in suspecting that the Crew has had a similar start following winning MLS Cup in terms of points early after a championship season, as Atlanta is the only team in the last five years — not counting 2020 — to perform better out of the gates. With 15 points at the end of the first third of this year, Columbus is in good shape when put in context with MLS Cup championship teams of the past. The Black & Gold’s one win on the road, while not ideal, is clearly not uncommon, and the team remains undefeated at home.

Of the past championship teams from this list, only Seattle had as few home games as the Crew has had thus far in the season. Porter and his squad hope to increase their point production with players getting healthier, the opening of Lower.com Field this Saturday and three home games in the month of July to help push the Black & Gold up the standing as they make a run at back-to-back MLS Cup titles.

“It’s been a start that has kind of allowed us to be bloodied a bit and bled into the season, and yet we’ve survived and got quite a few points,” Porter said. “We’re never satisfied unless we win, but I think that through it all, we knew this first 10 (games) would put us in position and these next 12, we have a lot of more at home.”