The tone Caleb Porter used to carry his postseason press conference wavered between disappointment and optimism. Perhaps those two emotions were also the two words that defined the Columbus Crew’s 2021 season.
In a year where the club returned to continental competition, opened and closed two history-making stadiums and raised a first international trophy, there was also a painful losing streak, an injury-battered roster and a Black & Gold side that missed the opportunity to defend its 2020 MLS Cup title by a mere point.
“Bottom line, we didn’t achieve our goals this year, and that’s very disappointing,” Porter told the media days after the 2021 regular season concluded. “Whether it’s a point or whether it’s 20 points, when you don’t reach your goal, and you’re in a club like we are with high standards and expectations, then we have to own the fact we didn’t have a good year based on our goals So, we own that. Now we have to make corrections.”
But before going into how Porter and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko will make corrections, it’s worth noting how the 2021 campaign transpired – including moments that involved the club forging a new path.
After winning last year’s MLS Cup, the Crew returned to the Concacaf Champions League following a 10-year absence and advanced through to the tournament’s quarterfinals, which ties the club’s previous best finish.
Then came the unbeaten home run in league play and a Dos a Cero against longtime rival Chicago Fire FC to conclude the club’s time at Historic Crew Stadium. (At least, the first team will no longer play in the country’s first soccer-specific stadium.)
In early July, the Black & Gold opened Lower.com Field, a soccer cathedral that marked the first time in MLS history that a club has built a second soccer-specific stadium.
But that month was also the start of the club’s eventual reason for missing the postseason, as the Crew lost six-straight games. With players unavailable due to injuries, international duty and health protocols, the club went on to lose eight of nine matches.
“When you look at that six-game stretch where we didn’t get a point, we had a lot of depth pieces playing in the backline. In my hindsight, those guys didn’t get the job done when they were given the opportunity,” Porter said. “And in my hindsight, I probably didn’t put them in a position to succeed.
“I probably could have been more pragmatic with our game plan, with our personnel that we had playing, but then also have to look at how can we keep executing the way we want to execute.”
However, that difficult spell provided the emergence of Miguel Berry, a reserve striker who went from being on loan in the USL Championship, to becoming an unsung hero in the team’s fight to make the postseason. Berry finished with eight goals, and the Crew finished the season, despite going unbeaten in eight-of-its-last 10 games, missing the playoffs by one point.
“You have to be able in a six-game stretch to get one win,” Porter said. “And if we got one win, we’d be in the playoffs.
“It’s just crazy to think that in most years, actually with the points we got, we would be in the playoffs. But at the end of the day, it’s a bottom-line business. We have to find a way.”
Porter said this is the third time in his coaching career that his team has missed the postseason by one point. He said he reminds his players how slim the margins are at the start of every season, but now everyone in the organization will have a longer offseason to salivate this feeling and use it at momentum to carry into 2022.
And that’s the tone that Bezbatchenko carried as well when he addressed the media about this past season.
“You’re going to have ups and downs in any season, as we had probably higher highs and lower lows this year than you would probably like,” the GM said. “We have to find a way to dig out of these lows, and I really appreciate the way that Caleb, the coaches and the players dug down deep to finish the year strong. We just came up a little bit short.”
He said the core of the roster will remain intact, but the team will address certain positions that lacked enough quality. Porter, in particular, mentioned the wings but said he’s hoping Pedro Santos and Derrick Etienne Jr. play significant roles for the club in 2022.
But whereas Porter mentioned the on-field performances and spoke to how the team can produce better results next year, Bezbatchenko provided an overview of what the team accomplished in 2021 and how it has laid a strong foundation for the club moving forward.
This was a year the included the opening of Lower.com Field, the OhioHealth Performance Center, a return to the international stage and the club’s first-ever international trophy, the Campeones Cup against Deportivo Cruz Azul.
“While we didn’t achieve our end goal, we felt like we delivered in one of our goals which is to take care of our supporters and give back to the community,” Bezbatchenko said. “We feel like some of the moments this year were just remarkable.
“One is ability to get on the global stage and compete in Champions League. To be able to do that against (CF) Monterrey in our Historic Crew Stadium is something this club hasn’t done for a long time.”
But now that the Crew was able to return to international competition, that’s the goal of every season moving forward. Of course, the focus next year is to also make the playoffs and compete for a third MLS Cup.
Both Porter and Bezbatchenko delivered remarks on how 2021 was filled with great moments and could have been better, but they also explained why the groundwork is laid to become a perennial power in MLS. That’s not just an ambition, but an expectation.
“There were some great moments, but the one moment that we want to achieve, our priority is making the playoffs, and we have expectations for ourselves at this club,” Bezbatchenko said. “As you can see with our resources and ambition of ownership, we want to be a leader in the conference.
“I want to thank the fans, want to thank ownership and our staff, and we’re excited to look forward to next year.”
If Porter’s work coaching is done in 2021, Bezbatchenko’s roster building for 2022 is just building. It’s important to note this is a club that hoisted a trophy this year and is still saying expectations weren’t met.
If there was any notion by supporters that this won’t be an offseason to improve, it’s worth noting that both the coach and GM spent more time talking about the one extra point they didn’t get during the 34-game season than the Campeones Cup.
The Columbus Crew is an ambitious club. Now, we wait to see where the ambition leads the Black & Gold next year.