Columbus Crew SC - Josh Williams and Zack Steffen - hug after NYCFC playoffs game
Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports

Columbus embrace underdog role, again, in East final vs. Toronto

OBETZ, Ohio – Having already bested Atlanta United and New York City FC in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, Columbus Crew SC are no strangers to the underdog role they undoubtedly hold again in their Eastern Conference Final against Toronto FC

Whether it was expert predictions, mathematical algorithms or fan votes, very few gave Columbus a chance to advance even this far, where they face an even greater task: knocking off one of the best teams in the history of MLS.

Toronto, who set a league record with 69 regular season points in 2017, are once again the heavy favorites. But Crew SC players and coaches are quietly confident, and coach Gregg Berhalter says “of course” there’s extra motivation to beat the historic Toronto squad.

“That goes without saying,” he said. “I think they’ve had a pretty big target on their backs for a while now. New York (Red Bulls) wanted to do it; we want to do it. But there’s a huge difference between wanting to do it and actually do it.”

Captain Wil Trapp thinks Columbus are one of the most prepared teams in the league, making it “hard to think about yourselves as an underdog.”

And with victories over Atlanta and NYC under their belts, they’re no stranger to playing up to the moment.

“Every team we’ve played has been bigger in a lot of senses of the words,” Trapp said. “Ultimately, Atlanta was a tough game – we moved on. New York City was a tough series – we moved on. Now we’re playing in the granddaddy of them all against a team who was the best in the league all year.”

Justin Meram says the team has embraced the Cinderella role “a little bit,” but that it’s time for the rest of the country to pay attention to Columbus.

“We’ve been written off so many times, it’s more of us playing with a chip on our shoulder and understanding how good we are as a team and a club,” he said. “We can play with the best and we can hold our own.”

When given ESPN’s “Soccer Power Index” 34 percent chance for Columbus winning, Meram laughed. He thought the number would be even lower.

“We don’t even look at it,” he said. “They can talk about it all they want. I’m sure the percentage for beating Atlanta or beating New York City was around there. It’s just a number.”

Berhalter said he knows most pundits aren't giving his side a chance. But with so much on the line, he said the events of the regular season are largely unimportant when the two teams go head-to-head on Tuesday night.

“They’re standing in our way of hosting MLS Cup,” Berhalter said. “We want to host MLS Cup. We want to win MLS Cup. We have to go through Toronto to do it.”