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Crew face ‘best team in the league’ in defending MLS Cup champions New York City FC

The biggest challenge of the year awaits the Black & Gold on Saturday.

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Traveling to face the New England Revolution last weekend was the biggest challenge of the season for the Columbus Crew up to that point. Saturday marks a step up in competition.

The Crew is back on the road on Saturday to take on New York City FC. Not only is City three points and five places in the Eastern Conference standings removed from the Revolution, but NYCFC is the defending MLS Cup champions.

“I said it last year, even before they won the MLS Cup that I thought they were the best team in the league,” Black & Gold head coach Caleb Porter said of the Pidgeons this week. “Then they went on to win MLS Cup. They largely returned their entire roster. A few pieces out but mostly their key, core guys are back. They’re playing in a very similar way to how they played last year.”

Last season, New York City finished in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 14 wins and 51 points. On their way to winning their first MLS Cup, the Cityzens twice won in penalty kicks, including eliminating New England, the record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners.

Despite Porter’s praise, and others around Major League Soccer, NYCFC didn’t start the 2022 season all that well. While also taking part in the CONCACAF Champions League, City began the year with one win in its first five games.

Since being eliminated from the Champions League by the Seattle Sounders in the semifinals, New York City has found its MLS form, winning three straight games before last week’s 0-0 draw with Sporting Kanas City.

So what is it about NYCFC that makes the team so good?

“I think the attacking side,” Crew midfielder Artur responded when posed this question. “The players they have in front. They most of the time make the difference. They have a lot of quality here and it seems like they understand each other well and even sometimes they switch players, a player goes and a player comes, and they have kind of that are still there. And I think when you have good players that are on the same team, it’s not that hard to play well most of the time.”

When City first came into MLS in 2015, that attack was made up of superstars such as David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, all legends of the European game. The type of success the team expected on the field didn’t come, however.

There was a shift in philosophy in recent years, going for lesser-known names but still plenty of talent that has worked better. That change led to last year’s MLS Cup win.

“Talent and team,” Porter said of what makes City so good. “There’s a lot of teams that have talent but they don’t have a team, and what I mean by that is a team that’s cohesive, a team that has unity and chemistry and those things matter. The combination always is talent and the team. And when you put the two together like they did last year, like they’re doing this year even though early they were in the Champions League… But they’re the combination of high, high-end talent across the board. I don’t think they have a weakness in any position and actually, they probably have six guys on the bench as well.”

Last season, New York City was led in attack by Valentin Castellanos, MLS’s leading goal scorer in 2021 with 19 finishes. The Pigeons also have Herber, who has stepped in at forward as Castellanos battled injuries recently, Thiago Andrade, Talles Magno and others.

After scoring 56 goals a year ago, tied for third-most in MLS, NYCFC has scored 19 goals in nine matches this year. This includes scoring three or more goals in four games and already with a four-goal, five-goal and six-goal outings.

So far this year, the Crew has been good defensively, allowing only 11 goals and recording three shutouts.

“We’re playing, for me, one of the best teams in the league and yet, we’re also one of the best teams in the league, I feel, when we perform like we’ve been performing and we’re healthy,” Poter said. “And we’re getting full strength (for this game). I think we’re continuing to improve. It’s early in the year obviously, so we’re nowhere near where we need to be or want to be or where we can be, but this is definitely going to be a measuring stick for us.”

There is no doubt this will be the biggest test of the year for the Black & Gold, hoping to limit one of the best teams in MLS on the road. Like other teams this year, Columbus will be gunning to take down the defending champions.

The Crew knows all about this, however. The Black & Gold won the 2020 MLS Cup and last season, prior to the injury bug biting the team, saw first-hand what kind of challenge it is to climb the mountain a second time with every team circling that game.

Now Columbus is the hunter going after the defending champion, hoping to get back to the top.

“We definitely want to get back there,” Porter said. “Don’t ever worry about that. We definitely want to get back there and our guys are hungry to get back there. We do have a group of guys who have done it.”