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Depth, a strong locker room are key for the Crew’s newfound road strength

While the Black & Gold sits near the top for road records, they still sit in the middle of the league in terms of how many points they’re earning at home.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew reached the midway point of the MLS regular season. With half of the scheduled matches behind the Black & Gold, there’s an underlying positive that gets lost in the overall points, off-field debates and roster changes. The Crew has turned into a good road team. And, after years of jokes at the expense of head coach Caleb Porter’s road record, or lack thereof, it is away matches that have kept Columbus battling through unprecedented injuries and tactical adjustments to stay in the MLS Cup playoff race.

At the season’s midway point, half of the Crew’s 22 points came in road matches. While the Black & Gold won three away matches in all of 2021, Columbus already has two away wins with 17 total games to go, and, appropriately enough, the Crew starts the second half of the season away from Field. If the Black & Gold earn at least a point at Soldier Field against the Chicago Fire, and it will be the sixth match in a row where Columbus hasn’t lost.

“Can we continue our positive mentality on the road?” asked Porter on Friday. “We’ve been one of the best road teams in the league this year. We’ve taken results in seven out of nine games on the road, two wins and five draws. Can we continue that form on the road in Chicago?”

The Crew is one of only four teams in MLS with two or fewer losses away from home. This puts the Black & Gold as a part of an impressive group that includes Philadelphia Union, Orlando City and Los Angeles Galaxy, all teams currently sitting in MLS Cup playoff spots.

Columbus’ improvement on the road is oddly connected to the injuries the Crew has sustained. Midfielder Lucas Zelarayán’s injury in the fourth match of the season, and subsequent four-match losing streak where Columbus failed to score a goal with Zelarayán playing even though he wasn’t 100 percent healthy, was followed by changes.

Porter sat Zelarayán to give him time to heal and shifted to a defensive 4-4-3 and then a 3-5-2 instead of the 4-2-3-1 formation that is heavy on possession. Oddly enough, the Crew hasn’t lost a match this where Zelarayán didn’t play, largely due to the tactical shift.

Porter believes he knows the reason for the Black & Gold’s road success.

“It’s hunger. It’s mentality,” said Porter. “It’s depth. Our depth is better. If you look at the (Real Salt Lake) game, we’ve never been more thin since I’ve been here and we still find a way to go on the road and get a point.”

Also referenced by Porter is the strength of the locker room. In past seasons, like 2019 and 2021, when the going got tough, Columbus lacked the fight to pull the team out of a slump until it was too late in the season. Each year ended with a late resurgence but not enough to secure postseason soccer.

“A lot of time we lost the game in the end phases, in the final minutes,” said goalkeeper Eloy Room on Friday about past season speed bumps on the road. “So that was really a focus point of ours this season. Learn from that and if you cannot win the game at least draw the game.”

Getting draws on the road is a strength of the Crew this year, but almost to a fault. While the Black & Gold shares a low loss total with three other sides, 10 MLS teams have earned more points on the road because they are winning more on the road. Getting a point is better than no points, but points aren’t being made up at Field, where Columbus is tied for second-fewest points at home with 11.

The good thing for the Crew is that recent moves in the transfer market aim to fix this problem and move the Black & Gold from a team that draws matches to one that wins. Columbus’ five draws away from the team’s friendly confines lead MLS and Porter and the Crew are hopeful that new striker Cucho Hernández is the missing piece, either away or at home.

The expectation is also on those that have been on the roster for years.

“We got better defensively,” said Zelarayán. “Now I think we need to improve in the attack and try to score more goals. But I think that’s why we have been getting points, mostly away.”

The Black & Gold have eight more away matches in the second half of the season and nine at home. Even if the road momentum doesn’t improve, and Columbus keeps earning points on the road, at the team’s current 1.22 points per away match clip, a return to offensive form at Field will save what felt like a season with little hope for Crew supporters. The pieces are there to make that happen and cause a wave in the Eastern Conference.

“I think the depth, the mentality the locker room and our tactical flexibility, and once you get in a rhythm of that, you get results doing that,” said Porter. “You build confidence doing that and I think that’s going to really bode well for us in the second half of the year because I think we can throw a wrinkle in.”