It's no secret that the reigning MLS Cup champions are struggling at the moment.
The Columbus Crew are battling a five-game losing streak, a stretch that leaves them three points shy of the playoff line in the Eastern Conference, trailing CF Montréal for seventh place. That's not where many would have pegged head coach Caleb Porter's group at this point in their title-defending season.
But as Columbus look to right the ship, Porter senses an ideal opportunity: An MLS Cup rematch with the Western Conference-leading Seattle Sounders at Lower.com Field on Saturday (5:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes). The encounter is one of four national broadcasts in Week 21 as part of Heineken Rivalry Week.
Seattle are surging after a brief rough patch of their own, winning their last three matches across all competitions. Three points against an opponent like that, Porter said, could go a long way in changing the Crew's entire vibe.
"Obviously we're playing a really good team in Seattle," Porter said. "But I know that we can win this game, I know we have a good enough team to win this game. And if we win this game, this whole thing changes. Three points changes everything. So we can talk all day long about the last games and this, that. At the end of the day, we've got to win this game."
For all the struggles the Crew have taken on the chin, Porter believes they're uniquely suited to weather the storm. They're full of veterans who know the rigors and grind that come with an MLS season.
"The good news is 100 percent of the group is on-board together," Porter said. "Many teams in this situation would not be in the situation where everybody's together, which is why we've built such a good culture, such a good locker room, good group of guys that are accountable and we're all going to sort it out together, because we're in this together. I'd remind you we're three points off the playoffs and we have 14 games to go."
Added center back Jonathan Mensah: "It's been a difficult stretch of us. We feel for our fans. All we want to do is go out and perform for them and win. That's the most important thing. Things haven't gone our way recently, so I believe if we do what we can I believe we'll get the result tomorrow.
"It's going to be very important for us leading into other games to get this win. Everything will change from there."
Speaking ahead of Saturday's match, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said his team is acutely aware of facing a struggling side. It's the same club, after all, that steamrolled Seattle 3-0 in last year's MLS Cup Final, a bitter taste that still lingers among Seattle's players.
"[The revenge factor] is more internal for maybe the coaching staff than external as a form of a question or a reminder to the players because, look, they have to have that for themselves," Schmetzer said.
"That's a proud group in there. It's not that ancient history. It sounds or it feels like it's been a long time, but they weren't pleased with their performance. So I think it's incumbent on them without my help to dictate as to whether they're going to it a big deal that we're playing Columbus again or not.
"What I would say is that the messaging that we did give them is it's really nice stadium, brand new that everyone is excited to get into. And number two, the form of our opponent – not having won in the last five games is going to make them a dangerous opponent."
Schmetzer expects that desperation to manifest as soon as the match starts, absorbing early energy and pressure from the hosts. Columbus will look to get the first goal, something they've failed to do as of late.
"They are going to be desperate," Schmetzer said. "And that is the message that I sent, that we need to be prepared for the first 15 minutes of the game. They're going to come out and try and just win the game in any way shape or form they can. They just lost their star striker [Gyasi Zardes] to injury. It's easier to play the underdog card, but Caleb's going to have his team ready.
"This game to me is more about getting our team right, our tactics right, and then the message on the mentality side is: This is a desperate team, this is a wounded animal. And, yes, Caleb has the ability to kind of do the same thing he did in MLS Cup, which was tell everybody, 'Oh, the Sounders are supposed to win this game.' And then they came out that [first] 20 minutes of MLS Cup and really played better than us. That was a fact."