Columbus Crew SC were one of the fastest starters in MLS back in March before the COVID-19 outbreak hit, taking four points from their opening matches against NYCFC and the Seattle Sounders and generally underlining their preseason reputation as dark-horse title contenders.
That seems like quite a long time ago as they settle down in Orlando ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament.
“I told them [the players] yesterday I think it was 105 days since we stopped,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday, two days after his team’s arrival. “So we've been through a lot in 105 days. And I just keep crediting my players for their attitude, the professionalism, the way they've handled it. And we have too good of players and we have too good a team to not be playing towards something, a trophy, to not have a purpose. So I'm really excited to be here. I know the players are as well.”
Porter used the phrase “unfinished business” to refer to his side’s ambitions, which are both philosophical and competitive. Columbus have the talent to support their championship ambitions, and the desire to do so with a methodical pass-and-move style. Porter says they’ll stick to that plan, at least for the group stage of this event.
“Our game model and style will be the same, as a starting point,” he noted. “We've revisited basically a lot of our teaching that we went through at the start of preseason, how we build the layers up on our team, the concepts within our game model that relate to our philosophy on both sides of the ball, attacking, defending. So we did kind of a CliffsNotes version, a snapshot of preseason in two and a half weeks. We went back through that same process, we were able to get a 45-, a 60- and a 75-minute intra-squad [scrimmages], and there was a lot of really good stuff.”
Crew SC will adopt an intriguing two-part framework in Florida. They want to approach their group-stage assignments – a daunting Group E slate featuring FC Cincinnati, the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, in that order – just as they would regular-season matches, because that’s how they’ll be counted in the standings, albeit with less recovery time and probably more squad rotation.
Head coach Caleb Porter (center) had Columbus Crew SC looking like an Eastern Conference contender before the MLS season was postponed. | USA Today Sports
Should they book a spot in the knockout stages, Porter said they’ll wade into it like they would U.S. Open Cup during a typical summer, possibly shifting their tactics, personnel and mindset.
“In a regular season you're obviously playing the Open Cup [alongside] your regular-season games, so it's very similar how you manage both competitions,” he explained. “In some cases there's priorities that are different. We want to win both, but we might have to, once we get out of the group stages, think about how we're going to win the tournament.”
Porter hinted that a few key contributors won’t be match-fit in time to start during the group stage, but remains cautiously confident given what he’s seen during Columbus’ group training sessions back in Ohio.
“I was a little bit worried about that when this concept first got thrown out, that we wouldn't have enough time to be physically ready,” he said. “But I feel really good about our group being ready to play 90 minutes. Will it be perfect and cohesive and will our style of play show through as well as it did in the first couple games? We'll have to see. I'm hopeful. I see good signs … as much as everybody wants to see that first game be the perfect game, we have to understand it's still a long journey towards the end of the season, and our goal is to win an MLS Cup.”
MLS is Back poses a unique psychological challenge for all participants and Porter, who knows something about a knockout mentality given his role in the Portland Timbers’ memorable 2015 MLS Cup run, suggests that cohesion will be critical.
“I've been saying it all along, the team that has the best attitude coming in here,” he said, “that has the best spirit, energy, relationships, the team that likes to be around each other through this difficult time we've been in – and now it's difficult as well, because we're just here away from our families – the team that has the best bonds and the best chemistry and the best attitude, I think will win the most games.”
Columbus prioritized an early arrival in order to ensure they could schedule a pre-tournament friendly vs. Minnesota United; Porter said he “couldn’t fathom” playing a league game at this stage without a warm-up against an outside opponent.
“There's a bit of game planning in relation to an opponent,” he said. “How's that going be on the first corner kick when you're marking different people? The psychology of all those little duels, I think, is really important to kind of be in that and to get through that.”
Crew SC kick off their slate against their Hell is Real rivals from Cincinnati, an opponent wrapped in mystery considering their new head coach Jaap Stam, one of several new faces for FCC. No matter what that occasion throws at them, Porter says his squad recognize the big-picture stakes for their own club in the days ahead.
“We’re still re-energizing our fan base from a couple rough years where the club almost left; new ownership, we have a new stadium coming in,” he said. “So it's really important that our fans and our market see us on TV and that we continue to remind people that we have an exciting product, and that we have exciting players and that when we pick back up back in our market, they should be coming out to the games.”