Heading into late September, Columbus Crew SC were one of the most in-form teams in MLS — and it showed with their place atop the Eastern Conference standings and Supporters’ Shield race.
But what’s followed is a four-game winless stretch (0W-3L-1D), where the latest setback came Wednesday night in a 2-1 loss at Nippert Stadium. It handed Hell is Real rivals FC Cincinnati their first MLS win in this matchup in six attempts, leading to some dead-honest postgame remarks from head coach Caleb Porter.
“Obviously this is a tough moment and I apologize to the supporters,” Porter said. “I know they're down tonight and there's nothing that hurts me more than to have our supporters not happy. It's very disappointing to me, for sure. There won't be many guys in the locker room that are sleeping tonight.”
This was the fourth meeting of 2020 between Porter and head coach Jaap Stam’s FC Cincinnati, and the latter said they were the “better team” for the majority of the game. He questioned whether Pedro Santos’ first-half penalty kick was legitimate, but also hailed his team’s ability to rebound with Nick Hagglund’s game-winning header in the 49th minute.
Either way, the result snapped a four-game losing streak for FC Cincinnati and they're three points outside the 10th and final Eastern Conference spot in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. The Dutch manager, now nearly five months into his post, sees progress being made, even if the points haven’t always followed.
Highlights: FC Cincinnati 2, Columbus Crew SC 1
“Progress is being made in how we want to play and what we're trying to do. Everybody can see that,” Stam said. “The only thing is, yeah, when you don't have the result and everybody thinks, 'OK they must have been playing bad or it's not good enough,' but that's not the case. If you understand football a little bit, sometimes and even with losing games, you can still make progress and eventually by keeping this up you get these results.”
As for Porter’s honest evaluation, he said he has to figure out why their consistency has lapsed and certain senior players aren’t reaching their full potential.
“I have to have some conversations with guys,” Porter said. “I'm not pointing fingers, but it's my job to kind of help work some guys out of a funk because clearly there are a few guys that, for whatever reason [and] I have to figure it out, aren't playing well. Obviously it'd be easy to look at guys that aren't [available] and blame it on that, but we're not going to do that. We have to figure out ways to play better and win games when we have players out.”
Some of those sidelined players are goalkeeper Eloy Room and midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan. Most teams would slide without that trio up the spine, and Porter believes there’s a trickle-down effect.
“I do think some of the confidence that we've lost is just not having some of the guys in there that are infectious and breed confidence in the group,” Porter said. “That means some other guys are having to do more than they're used to.”
During this slump, Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union are widening their lead atop the Eastern Conference. Only a handful of games remain in Columbus’ 2020 season, so they’ll need to turn things around quickly to meet their aspirations.
“Confidence is a very delicate thing,” Porter said. “We were full of it and then we seem to lose a little bit of confidence in recent weeks, so we have to get our form back."