Columbus Crew SC celebrate Eastern Conference championship
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC focus quickly shifts to MLS Cup: "We expected to be here in this position"

“One step away.”

Those were the first words Caleb Porter said in his opening statement after Columbus Crew SC defeated the New England Revolution 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Final Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium.

The head coach would delve deeper into the journey, both personally and collectively, and those who have been instrumental in leading the Crew back to MLS Cup, which they’ll host Dec. 12 against either the Seattle Sounders or Minnesota United, who meet in Monday's Western Conference Final (9:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info) at Lumen Field.

But his initial comments spoke of the Crew’s commitment to a job not quite done.

“We started this tournament, we wanted to make four steps, we made three of the four, and I know the guys in that locker room, they’re real happy to put that Eastern Conference Championship trophy in the trophy case,” Porter said in his postmatch video conference call with reporters. “That’s what it’s about, but there’s a much bigger trophy — the MLS Cup trophy — that we have our eye on. We expected to be here in this position, we believed we could be here and now we have the opportunity to play a home game to become MLS Cup champions.”

Highlights: Columbus Crew SC 1, New England Revolution 0

With the understanding defending is a collective mindset, Porter lauded his team for a second consecutive clean sheet in their fourth win in a row.

And to reach MLS Cup for a third time in club history, Columbus needed attacking players like Gyasi Zardes and Lucas Zelarayan to work off the ball and for the defensive linchpins like captain Jonathan Mensah and defensive midfielder Artur to create that special offensive moment for the game’s lone goal.

“I think our team defending has been exceptional the whole year,” center back Josh Williams said. “I think guys like [Zardes], he scores a lot of goals, but the amount of work that guy does defensively is insane.”

"These guys work, and I think that’s been the real difference this year is we’re balanced,” Porter added. “We’re good on the ball, but obviously we’re a good defensive team and that’s usually what makes the difference is the balance. We’re going to need that in the final because we’re going to be playing against a very good attacking team.”

Artur, particularly, has been able to score big goals in this run after only scoring one postseason goal in his career before this season. The Brazilian workhorse scored twice in the Crew’s final six regular season games and has added another two in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, including the winner Sunday.

“Usually on the corner kicks, I’m not looking very much to head the ball," Artur said. "I’m looking for the second balls. The play went on and I was trying to watch, trying to get in the best spot I could. Jona made a good layoff for me and I was very happy with the finish.”

Watch: Artur scores winning goal for Columbus Crew SC vs. New England Revolution

Porter said his team “evolved from good players into winners” during the season. He credited the seven players in his starting XI Sunday who were back from last year, specifically Artur, Harrison Afful, Milton Valenzuela and Mensah, who has become “an animal defensively and a beast in the air.”

Mensah, in his first year as Crew captain, was emotional after the victory, sharing a moment on the field with Porter, who said he’s gotten to become very close with the center back this year.

“I think he’s an unbelievable person, one of the best people you’ll ever meet, just big heart, really good guy, really special leader,” Porter said. “He hasn’t seen his wife in 10 months and I couldn’t imagine being 10 months without my wife. The fact he goes home alone every day and comes to training and rolls the sleeves up, he’s just unbelievable. I joke with him he’s going to be the president of Ghana one day. He has that type of quality.”