In retrospect, maybe it was meant to be.
Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final at MAPFRE Stadium unfolded five years to the day after Columbus Crew SC hosted the 2015 MLS Cup at the same venue. That Sunday afternoon proved a painful one for Crew fans, as a Portland Timbers side led by current Columbus coach Caleb Porter hoisted the Phillip F. Anschutz trophy via a 2-1 upset win.
Only joy and satisfaction reigned for the home team this time around, however.
The Crew beat the New England Revolution 1-0 to book their first return to the title bout in half a decade, and capped an incredible three-year phase in which the club’s supporters faced the searing threat of losing their club, responded with the inspiring (and successful) “Save the Crew” grassroots movement, and got to witness their club enter a bright new era with new owners, a new downtown stadium and a squad built to excel in modern MLS.
“I can't possibly express enough gratitude to those people who worked tirelessly like they did,” longtime Columbus defender and Ohio native Josh Williams said after Sunday’s hard-won victory. “I wish I could name all of them, but there’s thousands of people who literally worked their butts off to even have a chance to have this possibility.
“Now with the new stadium and change of ownership and all of that, I think it's just building – it’s this tidal wave just building and it just feels good. It feels good to be able to provide happiness again. They deserve it. Those guys deserve it.”
WE'RE NOT DONE YET. pic.twitter.com/RAEX2a958Z— x - Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) December 6, 2020
The Crew take pride in being “MLS’s first team,” an honorific earned in 1995 by virtue of their future fans being the first in the league to reach the 10,000 season-ticket deposits milestone laid out as a precursor for launch.
They were also the first to move into a soccer-specific stadium of their own, in 1999, a watershed for North American soccer writ large. And now they’ve given that historic venue an ideal sendoff in the form of hosting another MLS Cup final before their new home debuts next summer.
“I kind of look for a story when I pick a job, and it's got to resonate,” Porter said after his side edged the Revs. “I need to take on a project and I’ve got to believe in it and I’ve got to feel like there's something to motivate me to give what I give, because not to be cliché but it's a 24 hours/seven days a week/365-days a year job and I sacrifice a lot for it and I give a lot and it's not easy, it's a grind.
“So I picked this job because I liked the story, the tradition of Columbus Crew being the first club, a tradition of success, and I liked the idea of reviving it, reinvigorating it, and it motivated me to come here, and obviously bring a trophy to their fans.”
That mission started with the arrival of the Haslam/Edwards ownership group and kicked into gear with the arrival of Porter and president Tim Bezbatchenko at the start of 2019. And it seems to have been capped by the acquisition of playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and midfield engine Darlington Nagbe a year ago, two key pieces who cost a pretty penny but have pushed Crew SC into the MLS elite.
On Sunday Zelarayan began the sequence that finished with Artur’s game-winning goal, flashing his fluid skill on the ball to carve out space for a searching cross to Jonathan Mensah. And Nagbe was his usual quietly excellent self, orchestrating the midfield control that paced MLS Cup triumphs for his two previous teams in Portland and Atlanta.
Watch: Artur scores Columbus' game-winner vs. New England
And both leaned into the defensive graft to keep that 1-0 scoreline secure.
“These guys have become winners,” said Porter. “And I told them that in the locker room: They’ve evolved from good players into winners. It's a credit to the group, because we have some very creative players that help us play football, but I think what I'm most proud of is, when we don't have the ball, how hard they work.
“We're talking guys like Lucas Zelarayan, who's one of the most special players I've coached – he works, he works and works and works. Darlington Nagbe and Pedro [Santos] and Gyasi [Zardes] – these guys work, and it's hard to get guys that are good attacking players to work. And I think that's been the real difference this year, is we’re balanced, and good on the ball, but obviously we're a good defensive team.”
Only the Philadelphia Union conceded fewer goals than Columbus during the regular season, and that collective commitment to the grind was key in stifling Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and the rest of the red-hot Revs attack.
“To have those guys so willing to just take the two, three extra steps to slide back and cut off passing lanes and to track guys down when they’re running at guys – [the Revs] would beat a couple guys off the dribble but then the next guy would come through and just poke it away,” noted Williams. “Just the anticipation from everyone, you could tell we were locked in as a back unit.”
Next weekend the Crew will host a cup final on the home turf, where they’re 12-1 this year, and while it’s likely the last such occasion at MAPFRE, the plan is to make plenty more of those moments at the new house in the years ahead.
“It's a great group here; I’m on board for the long haul,” said Porter. “And we're going to hope to win this this year, but we're going to keep trying to win every single year. We want to build a culture of winning, year after year after year, contending for trophies.”