Even when surrounded by 23 other MLS teams at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the Columbus Crew are trying to maintain a sense of normalcy.
The soccer-centric bubble can make that difficult, but head coach Caleb Porter described some of the tricks they’ve turned to at the MLS is Back Tournament. They’ve eaten at restaurants within the complex, players sometimes wear jeans instead of team gear and players – those over 21, of course – can relax with a beer or glass of wine.
“These guys are real pros, they’re extremely professional but they still have to have a feeling that there's life outside training for a couple hours,” Porter said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “So, I think we’re trying to find those little things to keep them feeling normal."
As Porter noted, non-training hours in Orlando far exceed those with drills or workouts. Players are accustomed to this work-life balance on MLS road trips, but the duration of those hotel stays pale in comparison. They’re also not seeing their families and friends for weeks at a time, compounding the preceding months of at-home isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s amazing just feeling normal and doing some normal things makes a real difference,” Porter said. “Going to the pool, relaxing, and having a laugh there.”
That approach is clearly working, with Columbus storming to a 4-0 win over Hell is Real rivals FC Cincinnati. The likes of Gyasi Zardes, Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe turned in impressive performances – they all made the Team of the Week presented by Audi – but Porter feels there’s more to their success than talent.
“I think this locker room knows how to find our balance,” Porter said. “We like being around each other, we have fun, lots of laughs, enjoy their football, they enjoy hanging out and having fun, but when it comes down to the game and being focused and having a winning, killer mentality, this group is showing that, and that’s great to see and it’s something that you want to harness in every team you have.”
Porter knows that chemistry and leadership are essential qualities, and both started to emerge last summer when Columbus’ roster rebuild truly began. With their 2-0-1 start to the 2020 season, Porter hopes the bonds will only grow.
“These things matter — they’re thrown around loosely everywhere,” Porter said. “Some teams have them, some don’t. Some teams have more than others, the ones that win championships have it."