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‘The best is yet to come’ — The Crew understands but is not satisfied with start to 2021 season

The Black & Gold know there is room for improvement after roughly the first third of the year.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Austin FC was game No. 10 for the Columbus Crew in the 2021 Major League Soccer season. This means the Crew is nearly one-third of the way through the 34-game season, a good point to reflect back on how the defending MLS Cup champions have performed throughout the year.

The Black & Gold have a 4-3-3 record so far this season and the team’s 15 points are good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Based on recent MLS Cup winners, the Crew is on pace or better than most teams in the season following a title.

“We chunk the season into thirds essentially and we targeted the first 10 games to have 1.5 points per game, at a minimum,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the Austin game. “So we hit that mark.”

While fans may not be content with fifth place in the East for a team that some pundits picked to win the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best record in MLS each year, there has to be some perspective put on Columbus’ start to the season.

First, as Porter cautioned multiple times in preseason, it’s never easy to be the defending champions. Every team wants to beat the reigning champs each game and if the Crew doesn’t have that extra five percent that the opposition might get from taking on the title winners, it makes for a more difficult contest.

Additionally, winning MLS Cup meant the Black & Gold began the season in the CONCACAF Champions League. While Columbus will never complain about the opportunity to compete on the international level, playing nine games in just over five weeks to open the year was not easy.

Then add in that the Crew, who will open the team’s new downtown stadium on Saturday, played six of the first 10 games of the year on the road, not including trips to Nicaragua and Mexico, and it’s easier to see where Porter’s tempered early-season expectations came from.

Compounding matters is the Black & Gold’s seemingly ever-growing injury list. Of Columbus’ 10 regular starting field players, nine have missed at least one game with an injury. Goalkeeper Eloy Room was also forced to sit out one game due to quarantine procedures. The only two players to play in every game this MLS season are right back Harrison Afful and winger Alexandru Matan.

All of these factors add up and provide reasons for where the Crew sits in the table after the first 10 games of 2021.

“I think six of the 10 being on the road and having injuries on top of that, which we didn’t predict, I think for me, it’s been a start that has allowed us to be kind of bloodied a bit and bled into the season and yet we’ve still survived and got quite a few points,” Porter said.

“I’m proud of the guys that we’re grinding results and getting points and we took four wins and three draws in difficult environments and against teams that want to beat us.”

While these are reasons, they are not excuses. As much as the Black & Gold understand why the team hasn’t come out of the gates hot, they also know why there were high expectations for this club, both internally and externally.

The goal continues to be to live up to those expectations and the Columbus players see improvements coming for the defending champions.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best yet, which is good that we have the points that we’ve gotten so far during a tough stretch,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said this week. “That’s probably been the annoying part knowing we’re getting these points and we’re not even playing our best yet. The best is still to come and I think we’ll find it in this next stretch that we have.”

After starting the season with the majority of games away from home, the Crew plays five of the next eight contests at the club’s new Field. Playing in front of what is expected to be a packed house and a raucous crowd in the new stadium, the Black & Gold hopes to ride the wave of excitement to continue piling up points at home, where Columbus has just one loss in the past year-plus.

“Going on the road is always tough in this league,” center back and captain Jonathan Mensah said. “The more we can bag points, especially at home, it’s going to help us down the stretch.

“For sure we need to raise (our level), everybody on the team. We know what’s at stake. As a champion, everyone is going to play you with their best team and show they can also be the champions... The best is yet to come.”

The home results won’t come easy, however. After opening Field this weekend against the New England Revolution, the top team in the East so far this year, the Crew plays three of five games in July against teams currently in playoff positions. The Black & Gold will play at least a few of those games with multiple players — including forward Gyasi Zardes and winger Kevin Molino — away on international duty for the Gold Cup.

With injuries still an issue for this team, Columbus may have to continue to find a way to get results and stay in playoff contention over the next month before looking to make a push up the standings over the final portion of the season.

“I have to be honest, the next five or six games, it’s going to be a bit survival,” Porter admitted on Wednesday. “We’ve lost Derrick (Etienne) and Molino, we were already pretty thin on the wings. Gyasi’s going to be leaving for the Gold Cup, Bradley (Wright-Phillips) is still injured, Luis Diaz is still coming back, Pedro (Santos) didn’t train today. It’s going to be survival, but this is why you build a resilient team.”

The first third of the season wasn’t perfect for the Crew, no one would say that. The Black & Gold struggled to score goals and the team still has issues winning on the road.

But through all the adversity, the team is about where it expected to be given the situations at hand. Now it’s about building, getting healthy and getting better as the season progresses.

“We’re never satisfied unless we win, but through it all, we knew this first 10 (games) would put us in position and in the next 12, we have a lot more at home,” Porter said. “And I think in this next third is when we need to start to score more goals for sure… I’d like to see us score more and take more three pointers and start to get healthier and to dominate a little bit more in this next third.”