In MLS, as in many other walks of life, there’s a natural gravitation towards the new – flashy signings, sexy rebrands, fresh expansion clubs draped in excitement and free of clunky baggage of the past.
Though it’s understandable, that’s only part of the MLS story. And in an unprecedented year that challenged all of us around the world in so many ways, it’s all too fitting that the league marked its 25th anniversary season with the inspiring triumph of an original.
Columbus Crew SC, as mentioned in this space when they booked their place in MLS Cup last week, are MLS’s first team. And they were the first team in the league to gain a soccer-specific home of their own, when MAPFRE Stadium opened in 1999. They also happen to have dodged relocation two years ago, thanks in no small part to the grassroots movement their fans launched in response.
On Saturday night the Crew surprised almost everyone by knocking off the defending champs from Seattle 3-0 despite the absence of two key starters – not just winning the big final but dominating it, flying into their task with a commitment and intensity that you might say has been 25 years in the making.
“It's been an incredible journey for the club, for the city and for the people of Columbus,” Crew captain and inspirational center back Jonathan Mensah told reporters postgame. “We are so grateful for their sacrifices off the field, and what we could do to kind of like pay them back was to win this trophy for them. So thankful that we have this amazing fan base behind us and you know we did this for them.
“For this to be possible today, it is by their efforts and their fight off the field, their determination, their resiliency, got us to where we are now, for us to be able to accomplish this mission. So it was so emotional for me.”
A 2020 MLS Best XI honoree, Mensah has been a rock for the Black and Gold through most of his tenure in Columbus and showed particularly impressive leadership this season, despite spending most of the year away from his wife Kafui due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad disruptions it’s caused.
After the final whistle, Mensah wept openly on the MAPFRE pitch, overcome by the moment and missing his friend and teammate Darlington Nagbe, who along with Pedro Santos was ruled out of the final some 48 hours beforehand having been deemed not medically cleared to play and later confirming they had tested positive for COVID-19. After that news broke, head coach Caleb Porter declared emphatically that his team would go on and win the game regardless, hailing their spirit and resilience amid so much adversity this year.
Not too many pundits took him at his word. But his players did.
“Every team in this league now, they play pretty good, they have good players,” said Porter. “But the psychology of winning that mentality, every day, and that vision to do something special, that's what sports is about. So when we have adversity, I say this all the time: You can be PTSD, or you can be PTG, and PTG is post-traumatic growth. And I actually believe that you grow more than ever in adversity. I've grown more than ever this year, my team and my players have grown more than ever. And so when we have adversity like this week, we use it the right way, we handle it the right way.”
HIghlights: Columbus beat Seattle to win MLS Cup
HIGHLIGHTS: Columbus Crew SC vs. Seattle Sounders FC | December 12, 2020
Even the Sounders, a perennial trophy contender packed with winners, were taken aback by the Crew’s flying start, with center back Shane O’Neill later comparing the home side to a sledgehammer, paying tribute to their relentlessness and precision. Though Porter did shift his tactics a bit to become more efficient and opportunistic in the absence of Nagbe’s metronomic tempo-setting, the end product was much the same flowing, incisive Crew style we’ve grown accustomed to admiring.
“You saw we came out, we pressed, we didn't sit back. But when we had to be in a low block, we were organized,” said Porter. “We went a little more direct. That's what the game called for, I thought that gave them a lot of problems, and which played in transition a little bit more. So that was the main tweak, we knew we weren't going to have as much of a ball without Darlington and Pedro.”
Winning honors in MLS requires contributions from throughout the roster and so it was for Columbus. Star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan was unstoppable, buzzing around the field and conjuring up a litany of slick touches and dangerous combinations. A $7-plus million offseason investment, the Argentine Designated Player showed himself eminently worthy of it, creating or finishing all three goals in an MVP display.
Conversely, Santos’ replacement Derrick Etienne Jr. – highly talented but inconsistent at previous clubs New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati – stepped up to strike a clinical finish for the second. In Nagbe’s spot, Homegrown rookie Aidan Morris, 19, a product of the academy system Columbus have quietly ramped up of late, was exceptional in his first career postseason match, fearlessly dueling the likes of Nico Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan to disrupt the Sounders’ build-ups and send his team forward.
Another full-circle moment: Crew veteran and Ohio kid Josh Williams, enjoying a career renaissance this season, breaking into Porter's press conference to douse his coach with beer live on camera.
Watch: Columbus Crew coach Caleb Porter gets sprayed with champagne after winning MLS Cup
“This is going to be our year, it's going to be our game, it’s going to be our trophy. And that was the message before the game,” said Porter. “I don't care what they've done in the past, it's going to be decided on today. And I think we showed that. We came out, we fought, we had intensity in the match, from the opening whistle.”
What’s been accomplished in Columbus was already exceptional before Saturday’s win, and with new ownership funding Zelarayan’s recruitment, a new downtown stadium set to debut next year and a host of other upgrades, this title may well catapult them even further.
And just as importantly, the soul of the club, and the loyal community that it centers, have been valued and celebrated. That’s a story worth savoring as we close the book on 2020.