From afar, Sunday's win over Nashville SC included just about everything you could ask for in a home playoff match for Columbus Crew SC: two goals, a shutout, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in the last four seasons.
Yet, it was by no means pretty, as it took nearly 79 minutes for Columbus to register a shot on goal. When looking back, however, what made the Crew's Eastern Conference Semifinals win all the more impressive was understanding the intangible factors and the adversity that went into Sunday's performance.
Missing seven players due to positive coronavirus results, the Crew was unable to train at full capacity, including not even being able to touch a ball for two days and leaving one full day of preparation against a streaking Nashville side.
As Head Coach Caleb Porterput it, it was a very challenging week in what's been a very challenging year.
“I never had a week like this in my life, in my coaching career," Porter said after the match. "But we have had some moments this year that were similar. And so I think the mentality of the team, I just can't say enough about this group, how resilient they are, how they're able to adapt, how they're able to just keep focused. And I've never been more proud of a group.”
Columbus's patience and commitment to the game plan on Sunday cannot be overstated, as Porter & Co. knew what to expect from the expansion side who not only dominated an Inter Miami CF side in the play-in game, but also one of the MLS Cup favorites in Toronto FC, a match in which they could have easily scored three or four goals.
“We knew tactically they’d be ready, it would be no surprises from what we have to do," said Porter, "but when you don't get reps, then it's not going to be as clean, cohesive and sharp.”
Knowing Nashville had just gone through a 120-minute match five days earlier, combined with a short turnaround from their play-in game four days before that, the Crew's quality really began to showcase as Nashville's lower-block withered as time went on.
INTERVIEW | Caleb Porter following 2-0 win on Sunday
“I thought second half you saw the mentality – we saw our game,” said Porter. “We had them completely pinned back, we had complete control of the game. We were in the front half, we were on the ball, we were counter-pressing when we lost it. They had very little chances that second half. And even though we couldn't find the goal, we stayed patient, we didn't give anything away. Eventually, we're going to find a way through, and I believe that, the players believe that. We have the quality to eventually pick the lock.”
Was it "picking the lock", or simply wanting it more? Either way, Columbus's two goals showcased an ability to counter quickly and finish in transition, all fueled by next-level effort from the Crew's top goal scorers this year in Gyasi Zardesand Pedro Santos.
In the run leading up to the Crew's opener, you see Zardes and Santos simultaneously recognize the play, then out-hustle five Nashville defenders en route to the commonly seen cutback pass to just outside the six-yard box.
GOAL | Santos scores in second straight playoff match
Whether it's defending from the front, tracking back to defend set pieces, or winning aerial duels, Zardes continues to be a cornerstone for the Club, Santos said postmatch.
"We know we can play behind the defense because he’s fast, he can run and he’s very good all the time - with and without the ball. For us, it’s very important to have a guy like him because he helps us a lot on attack and on defense too. He’s showing all the qualities [he has]," explained Santos.
Zardes's speed was again on display in the Crew's insurance tally, which marked Zardes's 14th of the season.
GOAL | Zardes seals Eastern Conference Final berth
Now, after a tumultuous first half to the 2019 season and dealing with the ebbs and flows that 2020 has provided, Porter's Crew now find themselves just one win away from reaching MLS Cup for the second time in six seasons.
"It makes me proud to be in a position here in year two where we can have a chance to put a trophy in the trophy case," Porter said, "[but] we’re not there yet.
"The group is really hungry, they’re very business-like. They weren’t celebrating in that locker room - not one bit. They can’t wait to get back here next Sunday [to play] against New England [Revolution] at home, to punch their ticket to MLS Cup."