There may not have been a better team for the Columbus Crew to face on Tuesday night than the New York Red Bulls. This had nothing to do with the Crew and the Red Bulls sitting close to each other in the Eastern Conference standings early in the final third of the season. It is rather about what it takes to compete with a team like New York.
Prior to the game at Lower.com Field, Porter challenged his team to have more fight, have more hunger. Losers of eight of the previous nine games, he didn’t believe the Black & Gold showed enough of that in the recent stretch.
But in a crucial game at home against the Red Bulls, those traits are exactly what a team needs to get three points.
“If you don’t fight against the New York Red Bulls, you have no chance,” Porter said postgame. “That’s what they do and there was nothing tricky or complicated. You’ve just got to win first and second balls. You’ve got to want to be in duels, you’ve got to be hungry to fight and to work.”
In the first half, it was more of the same from Columbus. The hunger to battle with New York wasn’t there and visitors took a 1-0 lead into the halftime locker room. Porter told Bally Sports at halftime that he felt his team looked like a “deer in the headlights” in the opening 45 minutes.
“We came in at halftime and Caleb challenged us just to give more,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “Nothing tactically, nothing too fancy, just to give more. I think we did that in the second half and that lets us know that we can do it. It’s the biggest thing that we get out of it. We know that we can push and get more.”
In the second half, the Crew, despite tired legs, found a way to battle back and earn a much-needed 2-1 win. The score sheet shows a 74th minute goal from Nagbe and the winner from forward Miguel Berry two minutes from the end of the match, but there was more to the performance from the Black & Gold.
The energy was higher throughout the second 45 minutes, as the team pushed forward looking for an equalizer and then the go ahead goal. There was a sense of belief that hasn’t been there enough this year for Columbus that the team could get the full three points.
“I think we showed that we care,” Berry said of the second half. “We wanted desperately to win. We went 1-1 and we were not going to stop until we scored a second. I think that was the key. I think Josh (Williams) said it before and it was true where we equalized against Orlando and it looked like, alright, we’re equalized, now we’re good. I think tonight we saw that hunger that, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this game.’ I don’t think we stopped.”
Despite results this year, the Crew remains the defending MLS Cup champion. The issue is, the team hasn’t played like a champion throughout much of the season. Injuries and international call-ups can and have been blamed, but ultimately, the Black & Gold have not been good enough throughout 2021.
This is not due to a lack of talent, Porter and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko planned for players missing time with their offseason acquisitions, and even as the injury list mounted, a historically poor run of results in the late summer was hard to explain.
What fans saw in Tuesday’s match is the kind of hunger for a win that hasn’t been there enough for Columbus. As Berry noted, the Crew has made it a habit this year of getting down in the first half and fighting back, but at this point in the year, sitting three points outside the playoffs, comeback draws and moral victories aren’t enough.
“First and foremost, it was a great result,” Porter said. “At certain stages in the year, you’re more focused on performance and as you get to the end of the year, the most important thing is the results and we needed that one.”
While he’s faced much scrutiny this season, despite leading the team to its second ever MLS Cup last December, credit goes to Porter for this second half turnaround. A change from the team’s typical 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield allowed the Black & Gold to pin New York back more in the second half. Bringing on Berry and winger Alexandru Matan led directly to goals, but all five second half substitutes played a part in the win.
But it was the desire to get a result and then push on for the win that made the difference in the second half. This fight not to lose was something the team showed consistently last season and was a big reason why Columbus was crowned champions at year’s end.
“A team like us has to give everything we have,” Porter said. “Last year, I’ve said it time and again, we had just enough to win MLS Cup. I believe we were the fifth seed and we snuck into the three seed in the last game and then it took a one-goal margin into the first three games (of the playoffs). It was tight. And that was with us giving everything we had and being extremely hungry and I think there have been some times this year where we lacked 5-10 percent of that.”
With nine games remaining, the Crew has work to do to return to the postseason. Wins at home in the five remaining contests at Lower.com Field are a must and points on the road become more essential.
The fact that the Black & Gold are finally getting healthy will make that job easier but consistently playing like the team did in the second half against the Red Bulls will make the biggest impact on whether Columbus gets in the MLS Cup playoffs and has a shot at repeating as champions this year.
“I think that second half, finally the lightbulb went on a bit and I thought the whole team just rolled their sleeves up and refused to lose and that’s the mentality we had last year,” Porter said. “I’m hoping this is the start of our run to the playoffs and that same mentality that we created in that locker room, that belief.
“I think hopefully we can clone that second half.”