Being a Columbus Crew fan is notoriously exhausting. The first two months of the 2021 season have been no exception.
Heading into a three-week international break, fans have endured a dramatic rebrand and a need to re-save the Crew, a less-than-impressive squad that was not meeting preseason expectations coming off the team’s second MLS Cup win last December largely due to a plethora of injuries. After this first portion of the Major League Soccer season, the Black & Gold sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 11 points and a 3-2-2 record.
Injuries felt like they were coming left and right early in the season, with perhaps the most devastating being in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 when young midfield standout Aidan Morris suffered an ACL team that will force him to miss the remainder of the year. Starting left back Milton Valenzuela suffered a hamstring injury in late April that has kept him out of the lineup since.
The injuries, and plenty more, have tested the team’s depth and helped head coach Caleb Porter see exposed parts of his as well as areas where the options ran deep. Players like left back Waylon Francis have been able to step up in place of those injured and show what they have to offer. Other players like Vito Wormgoor are coming back from a longer stint away with injury and are able to take the time to reacclimate.
Regardless of these injuries, Porter knew the “floodgates would open.”
“Give us a little time, give us a little continuity, give us a little training and you’ll see,” he promised fans last weekend.
As of late, those floodgates have definitely begun to crack. The Crew is riding on a two-game win streak heading into the break.
The squad got its first breakthrough May 22 at New York City FC where Lucas Zelarayan played hero once again with two late free kick goals to give the Black & Gold a much-needed 2-1 win, the team’s first on the road in over a year. At that point, Zelarayan was Columbus’ only goal scorer in MLS play.
A 2-1 win on May 29 against Toronto FC at home saw the Crew come nearly true to form. The first half especially was just what Porter wanted to see with striker Gyasi Zardes and midfielder Luis Diaz contributing goals early that made the difference in the win. Zardes’ goal was his 50th with the club, taking him to fourth all-time on the club’s regular season scoring list.
“For the attack in general, usually there’s a lot of pressure on Lucas because we look to him to score,” Zardes said. “But at the same time, there’s a bunch of other guys that are capable of having opportunities to score as well.”
Regardless of the improvement, Porter doesn’t believe the floodgates are open all the way. But he doesn’t deny that it’s a step in the right direction.
Zardes says this break will give the Crew just what the team needs to push the rest of the way towards Porter’s standard: time.
“We were playing some big clubs Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, and that takes a toll on a lot of people’s bodies and you can’t get a full training session in,” Zardes said. “This little break is great because a lot of players are injured, and they get to come back and play one of the last games at historic Crew Stadium.”
The schedule was definitely cramped. Because Columbus qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League on top of MLS play, the Black & Gold squeezed 11 games in the first eight weeks. By comparison, FC Cincinnati and Real Salt Lake have played just six games total this season.
It won’t be a total break for many Crew players. The squad had several international call-ups, including Luis Diaz for Costa Rica (who has since been reported to be injured), Derrick Etienne Jr. for Haiti, Liam Fraser for Canada, Alex Matan for Romania and Eloy Room for Curacao.
The rest of the squad will use the time to heal and train. Porter is happy with where the team is and believes they have a lot more to do.
“We love it when people doubt us,” he said. “To some extent, maybe that early season struggle will humble us to where we’ll get back to work and people will keep underestimating us and that’s fine. You’re never going to see anyone in our locker room doubting ourselves.”
The Crew is back in action for one last hoorah at historic Crew Stadium on June 19 when the Black & Gold take on the Chicago Fire at 7:30 p.m. ET.