When the final whistle blew on Sunday afternoon, and the Columbus Crew lost to Orlando City SC 2-1, all the moments from the 2022 Major League Soccer season came flooding back. Not allowing a lowly San Jose Earthquakes team to come back from two goals down late in the match or a CF Montréal comeback following a late storm delay. All points lost, all adding to the deficit that the Black & Gold could never make up.
While it’s easy for supporters to remember these stats and dole them out day after day, it’s even easier for a coach to notice.
“Today was a microcosm of the season,” said head coach Caleb Porter after the match. “This has been the story of many games this year.”
Porter shared that story after the match. Throughout the year, Columbus was in good positions. In most matches, the Crew led in a lot of the on-paper statistics. Possession, defensive stops and earning any points on the road were all highlights of the season. Unfortunately for Porter and the Black & Gold, so was giving up results late.
Sunday was no different. On paper, and with the eye test, Columbus looked like the better team. The Crew had a lion’s share of the possession and for the first 45 minutes, it looked like Orlando couldn’t muster up a challenge to the pressure of Porter’s gameplan. But soccer matches have two halves, and at this point, the end is already known.
“The reoccurring nightmare is that we shoot ourselves in the foot in the second half,” said Porter. “We missed the playoffs because of what happened today in the second half and what happened in many gamers this season.”
Into that second half, the same storyline continued. Orlando didn’t appear to be a team that needed two goals to move into the MLS Cup playoffs. Maybe it’s because the Lions knew the team that they were facing. No team in MLS dropped more points from winning position than the Black & Gold in 2022.
In the 56th minute, attacking midfielder Junior Urso pulled a goal out of nowhere, a thought shared by Porter. It was off one single mistake. Veteran Jonathan Mensah saw his chance to step up and stop an attack but was overtaken with a strong turn by Urso. It was an attempted defensive move that comes with a fair bit of success, flipped into a goal for the opposition.
With 10 minutes remaining, Columbus still held onto the team’s postseason destiny, needing only a draw to close out the match and earn a spot in the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs. An errant hand by center back Miloš Degenek gave the home team a penalty kick and Orlando shut the door on the Crew’s postseason hopes.
It’s easy to look at the Degenek hand ball, injuries to players or even the performance of summer signing Cucho Hernández, who pushed maybe too much on plays to put the team on his shoulders and win and make excuses. After months of giving up late goals, and trying to make changes to lineups, substitution patterns, and late-match tactics, there wasn’t any blame on the players. Porter did what’s expected of a head coach.
“It’d be easy for me to blame the players and the front office and all that but I’ll blame myself,” said Porter. “I’ll take responsibility. I’m the head coach.”
As the Black & Gold head into an earlier-than-expected offseason, there’s plenty of time to narrow down the blame further, whether that be personnel, tactics or the person leading the team. At the beginning of the year, Porter said he would bet his house that Columbus would make the playoffs, but he’s not ready to pay his side of it.
Porter shared that he has one year left on his contract, which he intends to complete, also noting that there haven’t been any conversations between Porter and the front office about his future. Over the next few days and weeks, time will tell if those conversations materialize and if the Crew decides to give it one more year or use the offseason to find a new head coach.
For the difficult results, supporters and the media can say a lot about Porter. Tactics can be broken down, individual moments can be blamed and personnel selection can be scrutinized. Something that nobody can say about Porter is that he doesn’t care about the team’s results and missing the mark for a second straight season.
At the end of the final postgame press conference of 2022, as Porter responded to a gesture done in every press conference, a simple thank you, the coach couldn’t finish his thought. It wasn’t because he was trying to find the right words to say. It was holding back emotion. Emotions built up over bad result after bad result. It can’t be said that Porter doesn’t give his all or that he’s not realistic about his team’s struggles.
“I live, eat and breathe this job every single day. It’s a long season, 10 months, and we get a lot, we suffer a lot, there’s a lot of pressure,” said Porter. “I do believe that the game can be cruel, but also believe in the long run, it's fair.”