Professional players and coaches are accustomed to stress, pressure and uncertainty; it’s part of the trade. Staving off an outbreak of a deadly virus in your squad in the lead-up to the biggest game of your season, however, takes it to a different level.
That was the adversity that rolled in on Columbus Crew SC last week, as seven players were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 as they prepared to host Nashville SC in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday.
The situation forced the club to scramble, isolating the positive cases and dramatically gearing back their training activities in order to reduce risk of further transmission. There was fear of the match being postponed, and a worst-case scenario for the Crew could even have required them to forfeit the game altogether.
Imagine, then, their elation at riding out that storm and accomplishing the task at hand via a 2-0 extra-time victory that takes them one step closer to MLS Cup 2020.
“It was a very challenging week in a very challenging year,” head coach Caleb Porter said postgame at MAPFRE Stadium Sunday. “I never had a week like this in my life, in my coaching career. But we have had some moments this year that were similar. And so I think the mentality of the team, I just can't say enough about this group, how resilient they are, how they're able to adapt, how they're able to just keep focused. And I've never been more proud of a group.”
If the Crew’s possession game looked ponderous at times against Nashville’s well-organized defense, losing big chunks of training time as a group was surely a factor.
“I knew it wouldn't be perfect today,” said Porter, “because we didn't even touch a ball for two days last week. Didn't even touch a ball. And the only prep day we had was the day before the game, and it's difficult to do much on that day. We knew tactically they’d be ready, it would be no surprises from what we have to do. But when you don't get reps, then it's not going to be as clean, cohesive and sharp.”
Highlights: Columbus Crew SC 2, Nashville SC 0
And if some of Columbus’ players seemed short of full flow at times, consider the mental toll of watching, waiting and isolating, hoping that your next phone call or text wasn’t carrying news of a dreaded postponement, or even your own infection.
“We’ve been dealing with this throughout the whole year,” said striker Gyasi Zardes, who chalked up a goal and an assist in his man-of-the-match performance. “We’ve done an incredible job as well throughout the year to not have players catch COVID all the way until now. Cases throughout the country have been skyrocketing.
“So we tried to deal with it the best we can and sure enough, it struck our team. But we contained it, which was even more incredible, that we contained it before this match and we were allowed to play this match. The psychology of it, Caleb always stressed: stay positive, we look forward, nothing's going to break us. We have goals set this year and we're just one step closer to achieving our goals.”
Columbus did allow the expansion underdogs to hang around, spurning a few good chances and giving up several of their own in turn. Their typical possession mastery was evident, but often incomplete in the final third, failing to carve open Nashville’s rugged lines.
When virtuosity proved elusive, persistence and resilience subbed in. And eventually paid off after 99 minutes when Zardes fed Pedro Santos to finally break the stalemate, followed by Zardes’ clinical finish of a seeing-eye delivery from Luis Diaz to ice the win as Nashville opened up to go for broke.
“I thought second half you saw the mentality – we saw our game,” said Porter. “we had them completely pinned back, we had complete control of the game. We were in the front half, we were on the ball, we were counter-pressing when we lost it. They had very little chances that second half. And even though we couldn't find the goal, we stayed patient, we didn't give anything away. Eventually we're going to find a way through. And I believe that, the players believe that. We have the quality to eventually pick the lock.”
Now the Crew will host the New England Revolution in a week’s time, with a berth in MLS Cup on the line. It’s the kind of reward that makes all the stress and labor of 2020 seem worth it.
“We've been dealing with this whole year,” said Zardes. “That's why it's such a special year. And it motivates us even more to try to leave a legacy.”