Just over eight months ago, the limited number of local fans allowed at historic Crew Stadium for the MLS Cup Final between the Columbus Crew and the Seattle Sounders stood cheering. The Black & Gold had just won their second ever MLS Cup title and head coach Caleb Porter and his players celebrated in front of the Nordecke.
It’s amazing how quickly things change.
On Saturday evening, those two teams met again, this time at the Crew’s newly minted Lower.com Field, but the result was not the same. Despite scoring the go-ahead goal in the 77th minute, Columbus lost 2-1 to the Sounders, allowing an equalizer with two minutes to go and the winner one minute and 50 seconds later.
This was not only a defeat in the rematch of the championship game from a year ago but the Black & Gold’s sixth straight defeat, the second-longest run of any defending MLS Cup champion. And while there were signs of progress from previous matches again the Western Conference-leading Seattle, a loss is still a loss.
“It was 88 very good minutes, 1-0 against a very good team. And then we fell apart a little bit in the last five minutes, starting with the first goal,” Porter reflected on Tuesday. “A lot of errors on both goals. A lot of things we can do better. We’ve addressed those things, we’ll address those things in training.”
While the fans in the Nordecke cheered Porter’s enthusiasm after winning MLS Cup last December, some have grown tired of the head coach in a short time. Sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, the Crew has dropped below the playoff line during this skid and fans’ blame has turned to the head coach.
Although it may be a vocal minority on social media and message boards, the cries for “Porter out” have begun. Those who had expectations of a Columbus team that, on paper, added even more talent to its championship side to not only repeat but do so after winning the Supporters’ Shield have thus far been left disappointed.
And while Crew fans don’t want to hear it, there are reasons for the Black & Gold’s struggles a year removed from winning just its second league title.
The injuries are obvious. Player after player has missed time with various ailments. The absence of Kevin Molino to start the season, then injuries to the likes of Artur, Luis Diaz, Josh Williams and more have meant not only are some of the stars of the team not in the lineup but there is a lack of continuity. Add in that Gyasi Zardes — who is now also out injured — and others were away on international duty this summer and there are reasons why Columbus has not lived up to expectations, having not fielded the team’s best 11 together all season.
Many of the players that have stepped in, many of which, as Porter pointed out, have played well, were expected to be depth pieces, not near the top of the team’s starts list statistically.
According to Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who spoke to Massive Report on Tuesday, there is light at the end of the injury tunnel.
“When you look ahead, Vito (Wormgoor)’s back now, Josh is very close. We’re excited about how things are progressing with him over the last week,” he said. “And then you kind of look at two, three weeks out give or take, you have Gyasi and Milton coming back and toward the end of the year, obviously you have Arty.”
In addition to those players coming back, the Black & Gold signed fullback Steven Moreira this week. He is expected to provide more depth to the right back spot and add to the width of the game, something that is often missing with players out for the Crew.
Bezbatchenko, who pays close attention to not only what happens on the pitch on game day, but each day at training as well, is not ready to hit the panic button yet. While the Columbus native has emotional ties to the club just like the supporters, he is able to separate his feelings and look at the situation from a different perspective.
“We’ve got to look internally at our team and figure out how we play better in order to get results,” Bezbatchenko told Massive Report. “We have a competitive roster and we’re still confident that we can turn this around and make the playoffs. We’re three points out of playoff position. I’ve followed the league for a long time and the most important thing in MLS is getting momentum going into the playoffs. And now we’re in this stretch where we can get a little bit healthier, we can create some normal rhythm rather than the extremely condensed schedule over this stretch in the summer where we can get back to being who we are.”
The Crew did get back to playing more like “who we are” in the game against Seattle. It was the first in a long string of matches where the Black & Gold had stretches of ball control and got into dangerous positions in the attacking half.
Issues remain, however, in decision making and creating more quality chances offensively, as well as seeing out and winning the game.
“The bottom line, we didn’t get the result,” Porter said. “I’m bitterly disappointed. I know the fans are disappointed. There’s no one in this club that suffers more than I do and the players do. There’s no one that cares more. This is my job. I live and eat and breathe and sleep this every single day. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this club and the job and how I can do better, how I can win and how I can correct this.”
What happens over the next two-plus months will determine how this 2021 Crew side is remembered. While it has been a horrid run of results over the last six matches and the play, in general, has not lived up to the high expectations, there remains time to change the narrative on the season.
“Obviously we’ve encountered a number of challenges this year, but I’m confident in our group,” Bezbatchenko said. “I’m confident in Caleb and the staff and we can figure this out. We have 13 games left and we can figure this out.”
As for those calling for Porter’s head eight months after he became the second coach in the 26-year history of the club to win an MLS Cup, their cries may be better used as cheers when the Black & Gold take on FC Cincinnati on Friday evening.
“I’m the right guy for the job here, I proved that last year,” Porter said. “I didn’t become a bad coach this year. We’re going through what a lot of championship teams go through. That’s not unique. What’s going to be unique is we’re going to pull out it and we’re going to make the playoffs.”