Saturday’s Columbus Crew match against the New England Revolution is a matchup of intrigue. It features some of the most talented playmakers in the league in Black & Gold midfielder and 2020 MLS Cup Most Valuable Player Lucas Zelarayán and the Revolution’s midfielder and 2021 MLS Most Valuable Player Carles Gil, who are healthy and electric to watch. Each team also has new strikers in Columbus’ Cucho Hernández and the potential debut of new New England forward Giacomo Vrioni.
However, there’s a matchup that isn’t receiving a lot of attention in the build-up and isn’t within the lines of the field. It’s the coaching battle between Crew head coach Caleb Porter and his Revs counterpart Bruce Arena.
Look back at the history books of Major League Soccer and Porter and Arena’s names are littered throughout. After all, Arena has been in and out of the league since its infancy. In 1996, while players were running around in oversized soccer kits, Arena coached D.C. United to MLS Cups titles in the league’s first two seasons.
In 1998, when Arena traded in domestic for international soccer, starting an eight-year stint as the head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, Porter was lacing up his boots for the start of a three-year MLS career.
Fast forward to 2022 and both coaches have made their respective marks on the sport in America. Between the two are seven MLS Cup titles, five MLS Coach of the Year awards and each has even won a College Cup. In terms of MLS, there’s only been one season that one of the two wasn’t part of the league, leaving an everlasting footprint in the United States’ top division.
On Saturday, the two add another head-to-head matchup to their history, their 20th meeting across all competitions to be exact. After four seasons of Western Conference matchups between Porter’s Portland Timbers and Arena’s Los Angeles Galaxy, and three in its current Crew versus Revolution form, Porter carries a slight edge across the board.
Simply looking at wins and losses, Porter’s Timbers and Crew sides have won six of the 19, with Arena winning five. Since Porter joined the league as a head coach in 2013, Porter also has the hardware advantage, winning two MLS Cups to Arena’s one with the 2014 LA Galaxy in this time.
That doesn’t mean this match is necessarily more important.
“I respect Bruce a lot. We’ve had some great matchups here with them, New England-Crew and when he was in LA and (I was in) Portland,” said Porter on Friday. “I think he knows what he gets with our teams and I know for the most part what I’m going to get with his team.”
Over the years, this knowledge of one another’s tactics and styles of play have yielded competitive matchups. In the 19 head-to-head coaching matchups, 16 games ended in either a draw or within a goal of each other, outside of 2015 when the Galaxy put five past the Timbers in a 5-0 defeat and Porter’s side responded with five of their own late in the season 5-2 victory.
Focusing on the two coaches since 2019 and it sits more favorable for the Black & Gold. Columbus won the team’s first three matches against the Arena-led Revolution, including the 2020 MLS Eastern Conference Final. Since last season, after New England won an early season matchup 1-0, it’s been three back-and-forth battles.
When the Crew opened Lower.com Field on July 3, 2021, against New England, the Black & Gold went down two goals before fighting back to a 2-2 draw. On Sept. 18, 2021, Columbus went up a goal, gave up the lead and goalkeeper Eloy Room made multiple saves in the closing minutes of the match, on an injured leg, to secure a point.
So far in 2022, two assists from winger Derrick Etienne Jr., including on an 89th minute goal from forward Erik Hurtado, saw both sides coming back from deficits.
Saturday has all the makings of yet another close contest in the Porter versus Arena series.
“It’s going to be a difficult game,” said Porter. “They have talent and they’re extremely aggressive at putting numbers in the box, at times both outside backs, the No. 9 the No. 10 and even midfielders. They want to pin you back, counter-press you and we need to make it a game where they’re defending and a game where we’re finding the right moments to transition.”
Saturday, both sides enter with added motivation. The Crew is starting to build Lower.com Field into a fortress with a heavy home schedule over the second half of the year. The Black & Gold are on the right track too, with no losses in the last eight matches.
On the other side, Arena’s men lost goalkeeper Matt Turner and forward Adam Buksa to European teams halfway through the season. A by-product of their exit is that New England enters the match coming off two draws and two defeats.
There isn’t a noticeable rivalry between the two coaches, as MLS shared back in 2020, but if Arena’s New England can win away from home, against a Columbus team that sits four points ahead in the table, it’ll be a boost for the 2021 Supporters’ Shield winning Revolution and a much-needed boost to get back into race for the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs.