The MLS Cup trophy that Caleb Porterpromised to try and bring to Columbus wasn't won in 2020.
Yes, the Crew brought home its second championship crown this year, one that TV reporter and sideline analyst Brett Hiltbrand labeled so eloquently in an earlier reflection piece, but the seeds that blossomed before our eyes on Dec. 12 were sown well before.
Let's flashback to 2019.
It's January 9th, with typical snow flurries and that ubiquitous grey haze that accompanies Midwest winters.
Alongside Porter is President & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who are both making their first public appearance in Columbus since announcing they would be joining the Crew.
Porter, who was coming off a coaching sabbatical the previous season, delivered his opening remarks and thanked those before him as he introduced himself as the next coach of the Black & Gold, his boyhood club.
"Growing up in the Midwest and going to Indiana University, the Columbus Crew was the club that I followed," Porter said on that January morning. "It was the club that I supported. It was the club that I watched."
There was no doubt he was a Midwest kid through and through.
Porter not only grew up in Michigan playing club soccer for Vardar SC, but attended college at IU – a school with well-established Black & Gold roots under legendary coach Jerry Yeagley – before eventually entering the head-coaching ranks at the University of Akron en route to his first championship trophy in Ohio.
It's safe to say the relationship between Porter and the Club was well-established, but it still begged the question: "Why Columbus?"
With formalities aside, the veteran coach stood at the podium and addressed his rationale for taking on the position, a decision he did not take lightly, he said, but one that appears seemingly straightforward in retrospect. After all, when you think of the Crew, there is history, there is a proven commitment from the community, and as then promised, an investment from a new ownership group.
"When I met with the Haslams and Edwards Families and they shared with me their vision, it really resonated," Porter said in that opening press conference.
Porter accepted the challenge, despite having options elsewhere. To his benefit, certain foundational elements were in place, specifically with the League's top American goal scorer in Gyasi Zardes, one of, if not, the best centerback in MLS in Jonathan Mensah, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was set to depart for Manchester City mid-season. Still, it'd be a far-fetched conclusion to say he came to Columbus with "his guys" set in stone.
Ultimately, it came down to people and the energy around the Club, Porter explained, because "as I entered that final stage of making a decision that is ultimately what led me here."
From the ownership group through the Front Office, to the supporters and beyond, Porter's commitment to the Club started with its surrounding community, and there is no greater "community Club" in MLS than its first Club.
So, here we sat at the dawn of a new era, yet again, birthed from the blood, sweat, and tears of players and supporters alike, and now cradled in the arms of not only a new coach and a new technical staff, but new "club stewards" with the inclusion of the Haslam and Edwards Families.
At that moment, preseason stood less than two weeks away, making any target roster acquisitions impossible in the near-term, but it didn't matter. All that did was the fact that the Crew was here to stay, a reality that wouldn't be possible without a joint effort, and one that attracted the Crew's next MLS Cup-winning head coach.
"When I saw all of you in this community in the Nordecke, the supporters and everyone rally behind this club, that is the type of club I want to manage," Porter said. "A club that is relevant. A club that the people are proud of. A club where they are going to fight, roll up their sleeves and save it. I felt compelled to come back and to jump on board with that movement to save the Crew – not just save it but elevate it and continue to raise the bar."
The "bar" in this instance was winning MLS Cup, and the act of raising it started with instilling a winning mentality, which brings us back to the opening statement: the 2020 MLS Cup-winning Crew team was forged in tandem with the installation of that mentality.
Of course, there were others, too. For one, the welcoming of Eloy Room immediately shifted things – just look at the Crew's overall record since Room's first start on July 20, 2019. Since his debut vs. Montreal, the Crew has lost exactly five of 31 total games in which Room has started, posting a 16-5-10 overall record.
Throughout an overall disappointing 2019 season, Porter may have sounded like a broken record when it came to certain topics, with mental fortitude being chief among them, but fast-forward to 2020, and his assertions played out like prophecy.
When asked to explain what led his team to victory over Seattle in Saturday's MLS Cup, Porter simply attributed it to the team's day-to-day approach at training, where not only the tactics and fitness are finely tuned, but also the otherwise "unknowns," the intangibles that supporters either only read about from the training grounds or see for 90 minutes at a time.
"I believe a championship is won in the day-to-day process: how you play; the mentality that you have," explained Porter, who went on to say "what a long journey to this point," a statement that couldn't be more generic, yet appropriate.
And no, he wasn't solely referring to 2020.
"[It] started last year. Last year, [the] first half of the year was rough. It was a rough start. Obviously, it was a transition. But you saw midseason that we started to get our playing style going, we started to get players in that could execute, and the mentality – which is so important to winning – started to grow. And then this year, it carried right into this year from day one."
Fast-forward to December 12, and Porter's post-match assertion of "our guys became winners this year" earned literal validation in the form of another star above the Club's crest. That said, it's not as if that claim was ever in doubt, with evidence dating back to February.
Following an undefeated preseason (which, yes, is preseason) things quickly shifted gears with an Opening Match home win over New York City FC, the defending Eastern Conference regular-season champs. Six days later, the Crew went on the road and came away with a 1-1 road draw against the defending MLS Cup champions, the Seattle Sounders.
Next, it was a dominating showing in the MLS is Back Tournament group stage, which set up a healthy lead in the Supporters' Shield race until late-season injuries derailed their League-leading momentum.
Before we knew it, it was mid-August and supporters still hadn't witnessed the Crew lose a regular-season match. In fact, starting with the Crew's first preseason win on February 15, it took exactly 192 days until the Black & Gold witnessed an occasion in which they dropped all three points.
One-hundred and ninety-two days.
For over 27 weeks, there wasn't a box score that labeled Crew SC as losing in regulation. "Bubble" or no "bubble," the Crew set the tone early in 2020, and when they didn't keep up to par – which came during a seven-match spell in early Fall – there was little concern.
Looking back, Porter and his staff certainly didn't come across as panicky. All things considered, the Crew started six of those seven matches without Nagbe and two without Zelarayan. Depending on how one looks at it, that dip in form was really more of a catalyst, as that slump was promptly followed by three straight home wins to close the regular season.
"As much as everybody was panicking, we weren't as a staff and we weren't as a team," Porter said after Saturday's MLS Cup victory. "And in some ways that probably made us tougher, [that] made us stronger – like the entire year – all the adversity that we had."
From there, that momentum led Columbus into the most important four-game home stretch in Club history, as the Crew closed the playoffs with 300 consecutive shutout minutes, including a 3-0 MLS Cup win without one of the best midfielders in the League in Nagbe and the club's second-leading goal scorer in Pedro Santos.
"I think there was a little bit of extra motivation to do this for Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos," Porter said. "Those two guys, they were key to us getting here, and without them, it was a tall order. But, I think we used that to galvanize the group even more and give us a little bit more hunger than we had already, which was a lot."
Undoubtedly, the loss of those two players was daunting, but then again, the opportunity to play in MLS Cup wasn't built by one or two players, nor was it built by stringing together just a couple of wins – it was built by the collective want to leave a legacy, an effort that was ultimately greater than the sum of its parts.
"Leave a legacy."
That was the mantra running through every interview for the past few months, but come to think of it, it was also an implicit message that ran through Porter's opening remarks back on that January morning.
He came to Columbus not just to be a part of the Club, but to witness its elevation.
Now, just two years into his promise, Columbus is once again first in MLS, and in more ways than one.