As shocked as the MLS community was to learn Dec. 10 that COVID-19 positive cases had ruled midfielder Darlington Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos out of the 2020 MLS Cup final, Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter might have taken the news the hardest.
When interviewed on the Futbol with Grant Wahl podcast, Porter said he shed tears upon hearing the development. They were two days away from facing the Seattle Sounders, and it was yet another setback during a season that was already upended in myriad ways by the world-altering pandemic.
“I think it was a culmination of just the whole year and all the things I’ve dealt with and all the moments I had to be so strong,” Porter said. “As I was getting ready [in] two days to play in an MLS Cup final to top off and complete an unbelievable run and year and battle through everything, and I get a call that I’ve lost arguably my best player who makes us go, moves our team on the field, on top of losing probably our second best scorer in Pedro Santos. Certainly with my relationship with Darlington probably made it a little more emotionally and sensitive, I’ll admit that, but it was actually less about how can we win the game.
“It was more about, it felt unfair for a guy like him to not be able to play in the final, him and Pedro working so hard all year. Darlington obviously coming here to be with me, to be in Ohio, to win a trophy, his third. The fact that he couldn’t play in that game, I was mad at life at that moment. I really was and I cried for a second and I do what I always do, I pick myself back up and I figure out how I can find a way to win the game and make it a good story and a good ending.”
Columbus hardly appeared fazed, though, beating Seattle 3-0 having been powered by Lucas Zelarayan’s two goals and one assist. Aidan Morris, a 19-year-old Homegrown midfielder, plugged in for Nagbe alongside Zelarayan and Artur, while Derrick Etienne Jr. returned to the wing and added Columbus’ second goal in the first half.
But that didn’t lessen the emotions Porter and the Crew experienced in the game’s buildup. Nagbe had joined in the offseason via a blockbuster trade with Atlanta United, reuniting the box-to-box midfielder with his former Akron University coach. Meanwhile, Pedro Santos quietly had six goals and eight assists for the Crew in 2020.
When hearing the news, Porter still maintained hope that something would change. They had others ruled out before facing Nashville SC in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, and the hits just kept coming.
“The biggest thing was just telling the team,” Porter said, “and I think what made it even tougher was you have to get the second positive to confirm it, and I kinda thought, ‘Well maybe it’s a false [positive].’ Then in the morning, Darlington retested and couldn’t train obviously so he was out, but I told the team, ‘There’s a chance [for] false positive, we’ll know later.’ And then mid-training my trainer kinda, which is rare, inched over to me while I was coaching and kinda whispered in my ear that it was confirmed. So I continued with the training, didn’t miss a beat but on my mind at the whole time and at the end I pulled the guys and I just said, ‘Listen, hey guys, I want you to hear it from me. I don’t want you to get it from an email.’
“I wanted to look them in the eyes and tell them, ‘Darlington is out now.’ I said, ‘It’s tough, we’ve had a lot of tough moments, this is as tough as it gets.’ But I said, ‘Think about him, how he feels not being able to play in a final, having worked so hard. Think about Pedro.’ And I said, ‘I don’t need to think about anything else than we’re going to win this game. We’re going to win it — for obviously our goals that we’ve worked on and talked about all year — but we’re going to win it for them even more so.’ They all nodded and it was kind of a cool moment, and I remember thinking when I left, ‘Wow, they gave me the feeling that we’re going to do this.’”
For more from Porter on the Crew’s 2020 season and MLS Cup triumph, check out the entire Futbol with Grant Wahl podcast episode here.