When it comes to his team's upcoming Eastern Conference Final match with the New England Revolution on Sunday (TV & streaming info), Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter wasn't about to get drawn into the discussion about who's favored or who's the underdog like his Western Conference counterparts.
Speaking with reporters on his Thursday video call, Porter said at this point in the playoffs, every team is going to represent a formidable challenge. And that's especially true of a Revs side that entered this year's postseason as a No. 8 seed that Porter says is deceptive in terms of their actual quality when they're at full-strength — which they will be on Sunday.
"I know there's been a lot of talk about underdogs and this and that, I don't even think about that at this stage," Porter said. "Who cares who's the underdog or not the underdog? I mean, every team that's here at this stage is a very good team. The only reason that they're the eight seed is that they had two of their best players, their Designated Players, out quite some time. At this stage, that doesn't matter.
"We don't look at their eight seed and think it's an easy game. We have a lot of respect for their team. They're one of the best attacking teams we've played this year and they fight for Bruce [Arena], they've got great spirit, like all these teams have, you can see they're loose in a good way, which is again a credit to Bruce and the psychology that he's able to cultivate. It's going to a be a hell of a test, a hell of a game."
Still, if the playoffs are all about peaking at the right time, Porter said he feels as though his team is doing exactly that. The Crew come into the match having won three in a row and four out of five, looking much more like the club that shot out of the gate early in 2020 and was one of the top teams at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
Perhaps more importantly, they've displayed an ability to win their games in different ways, hanging three goals on the New York Red Bulls in Round One, before grinding out a professional 2-0 extratime victory over a stingy Nashville SC side in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Full highlights: Columbus Crew SC 2, Nashville SC 0
"Everybody is talking about the hot teams, but I think we're a hot team," Porter said. "We've won three in a row, we've won four out of the last five, and our players are full of confidence. We're defending well, we're scoring goals, and that's exactly the way you want it to happen: You want to be peaking at the right time in the postseason and that's exactly what's happened. So I'm real pleased for that, and that's obviously the reason we're advancing in these tournaments. Every team's hot right now, otherwise you wouldn't be making it to the third game."
The Revs come into the matchup riding a similar wave of confidence, fueled by their impressive playoff run that has seen them knock off both the Supporters' Shield-winning Philadelphia Union and another Eastern Conference frontrunner in Orlando City SC, both on the road, while finally getting the Designated Player trio of Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa on the field at the same time.
"One of the best teams in the league," Porter said. "And I think the only thing that really has kept them from being a higher seed was just that those guys are out. Similar to when we had Darlington [Nagbe] and Lucas [Zelarayan] out for so long. So, I think they did a good job of managing that time. It wasn't going to be obviously as good, they didn't get as many results as they're getting now.
"But Bruce always I'm sure knew those guys were going to be back in like I knew Lucas and Darlington were going to be back in and I think his calm and composure during that time when they weren't in and then his understanding of when they were gonna be in and knowing that his team will peak and gel — in some ways it almost sets up the perfect way to get your team to peak. I knew the same thing with Lucas and Darlington."
Exactly how full strength Columbus will be for the matchup remains to be seen after several players missed the Nashville matchup following positive COVID-19 tests.
Porter declined to get into specific players who may or may not be available on Sunday, citing confidentiality protocol, but did say that the club has been in constant communication with the players who tested positive and that they've all remained asymptomatic and are recovering. The coach added that at least a couple of those players are close to being able to rejoin the club, although he did caution that the lengthy layoff from training might complicate matters as far as having them back in time for Sunday's match.