Caleb Porter has brought his winning approach to the Crew, we should not be surprised by the result in El Trafico, and let’s all enjoy Brenden Aaronson while we can.
Why the Crew are on top of MLS
Some winners are driven by their love of winning while others are driven by their hatred of losing. Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter belongs in the second group.
I can vividly remember his reaction (he was on the verge of tears) when he coached me in college and we lost a game. We were very unlucky that day and it was our first loss in 10 games, but he didn’t care. Losing was not something to ever be accepted, and he let us know about it. Before Porter applies tactics, he instills a winning mentality in his teams. I saw it at Akron, I saw it at Portland and now I am seeing it with the Crew.
That’s not to say there’s not plenty to love tactically about the Crew: We can talk about how they drag opponents over to one side of the field by combining a few passes in small areas to attract several defenders, and then quickly switch the ball to the other side once the opponent has overcommitted. We can talk about how their wingers will often come inside and allow the outside backs to provide the width, only for the next attack to feature wingers hugging the touchline while the outside backs come inside.
The way the Crew move as a group when they don’t have the ball is also very impressive, because they know when to press and when to drop back and stay organized. Every player knows their role with the ball and especially without — this is why they’ve only conceded two goals in 10 regular-season games.
We can all see that the Crew are tactically excellent, and that’s why even without Lucas Zelarayan they had too much for FC Cincinnati in their 3-0 romp. What we don’t all see is that Caleb Porter’s maniacal approach to winning is rubbing off on the players every day during training sessions, team meetings, through texts he’ll send to players, or via the little notes he’ll sometimes leave in a certain player's locker on game day with some words of motivation.
Every action he takes is deliberate in filling his team with the belief that winning isn’t only possible, but it should be expected. It’s that approach, combined with the tactics, that has made the Crew the best team so far this season.
Pavon has Galaxy shining again
The most surprising thing about El Trafico was that people were actually surprised by the outcome, a 3-0 LA Galaxy win. They shouldn’t have been. The Galaxy are on a roll and LAFC have severe defensive issues.
LA have now won four consecutive games and scored 11 times in those wins, including three straight games in which they’ve scored three goals. LAFC are a little Jekyll and Hyde right now — they can be breathtaking offensively and tear you apart in one game, but then be undone by their shocking defending in another. They are tied for worst defensive record in MLS and after nine regular-season games have already conceded over half of what they conceded in all of 2019. With those factors in mind, this result should have surprised absolutely no one.
Why are the Galaxy in such a flow right now? For one, Guillermo Barros Schelotto is getting the absolute most out of every individual. I believe he has accepted that he doesn’t have the most talented team in the league on paper, but he does have a group that will work their socks off for 90 minutes — chase every ball, fight for every inch, and make their opponents uncomfortable. He’s instilled a very blue-collar approach and most importantly, his players have bought in.
The Galaxy have also been very efficient with their chances recently, as they scored three goals from five shots on goal against LAFC after scoring three goals from seven shots on goal in their midweek win at Portland. They lost Zlatan in the offseason and have hardly had Chicharito this season, yet Barros Schelotto has them just three points behind first place in the West and trending upwards. He deserves enormous credit.
Of course, you also need special players, and while they haven't yet seen that from Chicharito, the Galaxy certainly have that in Cristian Pavon. He was sensational once again against LAFC, and seems to get better every time I watch him. He can beat you off the dribble, he’s surprisingly strong and rides tackles really well despite his build, and he has an eye for goal.
I played with many talented attacking players that never quite became what they could have been because they lacked that consistent end product. This is what makes Pavon special — it’s not just fancy for the sake of it, it’s effective and shows up in the boxscore. He’s having an MVP-worthy season.
Philly’s year to remember
His terrific opening goal will be the focus of discussion after Philadelphia’s 3-0 win over the Red Bulls on Sunday night, and rightly so, but his entire performance in this game was a thing of beauty. The spaces he finds, the way he brings his teammates into the game, his first touch and the way he glides past defenders make him worth the price of admission.
What Aaronson did on Sunday, he has been doing all season, and that’s part of why I’m so excited about the Union. But as good as he has been, he’s not the sole reason for their current form. Jim Curtin has put together a very well-balanced group that is among the most fun teams to watch in the league.
Playoff-caliber teams always need several players that are in their best form at the same time and that’s what the Union currently have, from Andre Blake in goal, to Alejandro Bedoya and Raymon Gaddis, both of whom have been excellent all season, and of course Aaronson. Their core group are enjoying standout years and that’s what makes them not only a sure bet for the playoffs, but a team that can challenge Porter's Crew for the Supporters' Shield.
For evidence of the confidence and swagger they are currently playing with, you only have to watch their second goal against New York, which Aaronson unsurprisingly played a key role in. The movement, passing and chemistry was first-class as they practically walked the ball into the Red Bull net.
I don’t think they are getting the credit they deserve for what they’ve done so far this season, but if they continue in this vein, Jim Curtin’s men will be getting more than just credit at the end of the season.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.