Columbus Crew SC and Nashville SC expressed mutual respect after the soccer gods ordained Tuesday’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs results to set up a meeting between MLS’s original “Yellow Football Team” and the “the Boys in Gold” on Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium (8 pm ET | TV & streaming info).
While Nashville’s upset of No. 2-seeded Toronto FC provided the Crew with the unexpected bonus of hosting this Eastern Conference Semifinal, head coach Caleb Porter takes no joy from the prospect of facing arguably the league’s most in-form team.
“I actually thought Nashville was going to win,” Porter told reporters on a Wednesday conference call, explaining that his technical staff got a jump on compiling scouting video for the expansion club before their extra-time win over TFC. “I don't look at it like we ever get favors in the playoffs, every team's good. And there's no easy road, ever. You start to think that way when you play a different seed or lower seed, that's the wrong mindset. Every team's good, every team's capable.
“I would say that [Nashville] were, for me, the more dangerous opponent that we could face. Obviously, it's nice to be at home, so we're happy about that. But by no means were we celebrating the opponent in any way, shape, or form. They're a good team. Very well coached, they have experience and they're flying right now.”
Columbus defeated Nashville 2-0 in their only previous meeting, also a MAPFRE date, back on Sept. 19. The Tennessee side offer quite a different proposition at present, however, with a strong head of steam and all three of their Designated Players (Jhonder Cadiz, Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal) finally fit and starting together in the attack.
Highlights: Columbus Crew SC 2, Nashville SC 0
“Columbus beat us 2-0 at their place earlier on in the season and again, are a fabulously talented team, and not easy to play against,” said Nashville coach Gary Smith after Tuesday’s win. “But I do think we're in a very different place mentally and in terms of where we're at confidence-wise as a group, and the hope is that we can give them a bigger test and ask them a few more questions.”
Veteran midfielder Dax McCarty said as much during his appearance on Tuesday’s Extratime postgame show.
“That was still when we were finding a little bit of ourselves and trying to find a rhythm,” McCarty said. “We're a different team now, we are growing in confidence. I think that you guys can see it and we can feel it on the field. So we're going to go there fully expecting to put them into a really tough game.”
Sunday’s clash features two contrasting styles – Crew SC’s pass-happy buildups vs. Nashville’s sterling defensive rigidity – and their clear identities have been key in powering them to this point.
“They have a clear way of playing, they have continuity in it, they understand who they are, you can see that their coach has talked about and trained things that the players are executing. And that's what the best teams are like,” said Porter of Nashville, whose pragmatism has left some observers unimpressed but is working superbly in the postseason setting.
“I think the genius in football is the simplicity of execution, even though the opponent and everyone else knows what you're doing.”
Beyond their strong home form, the Crew may have a distinct advantage in the individual brilliance of their high-caliber stars Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. Can they break down the underdogs in a way that Toronto’s luminaries could not?
“When they have all their bodies healthy, Columbus is as good as any team in this league, so it's going to be another huge challenge, another huge task,” said McCarty. “I actually thought we didn't play too bad [in September], we just gave up some pretty poor goals in transition. So we respect the hell out of Columbus, we know they're well-coached and they've got difference-makers in Gyasi, Zelarayan and Darlington is a guy that we're going to have to try to limit.”