When Caleb Porter first told the media that The Crew’s upcoming stretch of six games in 19 days would be the hardest portion of 2021, reporters smiled and presumably chuckled while on mute. This was during a Zoom press conference two days before The Crew first played CF Monterrey on April 28.
The smiles weren’t because no one believed Porter; it was about how hard can the schedule really be for the reigning MLS Cup champions, who smashed their first continental opponent and were coming off a 10-day break?
The answer: pretty difficult.
The Columbus Crew ended their six-game stint on Sunday with a 1-0 defeat to the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium. With that, the club lost its second-straight game and rests with five points from their first five league games.
While a handful of games at the start of 2021 won’t be the difference between hoisting another MLS Cup or not, they reveal that even one of the league’s strongest sides can’t easily overcome a condensed schedule with nagging injuries and limited recovery time.
“Sometimes, when you win a championship, everybody thinks you’re just going to steamroll everybody every game and it just doesn’t happen in our league,” Porter said following the loss to the Revs. “Historically speaking, it doesn’t happen. We’re going to be in a dog fight the entire year, just like every team in the league is every single year. It doesn’t change because you win a trophy.
“It’s unrealistic and I keep a perspective on that as well. I know we’ll get better, I know we’ll improve, I know we’ll pick up points and I’m not worried whatsoever with this group. Actually, in fact, I’m not happy with the result, but I’m happy overall with the players that played – with their mentality. I think some of the subs did pretty well, some of the subs could have done a little better.”
That mentality won’t show up in score lines or on stat sheets, but it could be the biggest takeaway from The Crew’s hardest portion of 2021, according to Porter.
Consider this: Columbus hasn’t repeated a starting XI through any of its first nine competitive matches this season. That includes both MLS and the Concacaf Champions League.
In the first league games, Porter deployed 22 players, rotating the squad to prevent injuries, handle playing in two competitions, and simply to let players rest. While this clearly shows man management, it also explains why the club hasn’t carried much momentum from one match into the next.
For comparison, the Philadelphia Union, who the Crew played in the season opener, have only used 17 players this season. With a starting lineup essentially cemented, that’s allowed players to develop chemistry and build off previous matches.
Only five Crew players – Alex Matan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Eloy Room Luiz Díaz and Harrison Afful – have played in every MLS game this season, but only Room has started every match.
Porter has three different sets of center backs and four pairs of defensive midfielders.
These combinations don’t justify only one league goal for all Crew players combined in MLS (ignoring two D.C. United own goals), but they do reiterate that the team spent the last six games focused more on managing the saturated schedule than trying to stockpile points for the playoffs.
There’s no denying The Crew has one of the league’s best rosters and is impressive when everyone’s healthy. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case yet.
What sticks out from this recent run of games isn’t what Columbus couldn’t do as much as what the team will do moving forward.
It survived the hardest portion of the schedule and can now focus on only one competition. With only three games between now and June 19 – the last match at Historic Crew Stadium – there’s time to get healthy, adjust tactics and refocus.
Time is the one thing The Crew needed but didn’t have over the last six games.
Porter wasn’t trying to scare anyone when he mentioned how hard things would be. He was trying to warn us, and perhaps he’s the only one who fully comprehended how difficult it could get.