Columbus Crew SC is looking to become the first MLS original club to advance to MLS Cup since the Crew last made it in 2015 as the Black & Gold host fellow MLS original New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Final on December 6 at MAPFRE Stadium (3 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN Deportes).
In the topsy-turvy East bracket of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, the Crew is the only top seed to avoid an upset in their march to the Conference Final. The No. 3 seed used a dominant performance to handle the New York Red Bulls in Round One before taking down expansion-side Nashville SC, 2-0, in the Conference Semifinals.
Similarly, the Revolution is another example of a team hitting its stride and getting healthy at the right time of the season. New England entered the postseason as the No. 8 seed and beat the Montreal Impact in a Play-In Match at Gillette Stadium before picking up where they left off in the regular season as road warriors, upsetting No. 1 Philadelphia Union and No. 4 Orlando City SC.
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The Revs lead the all-time playoff history, 4-0-3, with the last meeting coming in the 2014 Conference Semifinals as the Revolution advanced 7-3 on aggregate en route to MLS Cup.
The two sides did not meet during the 2020 regular season, though Columbus won both of the two 2019 match-ups, first prevailing 2-0 at New England (March 9) before posting a 1-0 shutout in Columbus four weeks later (April 6).
Winless in five previous trips to MLS Cup, New England is looking to book its sixth MLS Cup berth while Columbus is trying to reach MLS Cup for the third time in Club history, having won the crown in 2008 before losing to the Portland Timbers in 2015 in a match played at MAPFRE Stadium.
Columbus Crew SC
Last Sunday, it took 99 minutes to find the breakthrough for the Crew, who scored twice in extra-time to fend off Nashville SC and reach the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2017.
Gyasi Zardes provided the game-winning assist, first setting up Pedro Santos in the 99th minute before scoring the insurance goal four minutes later thanks to a quick outlet from Lucas Zelarayan to Luis Diaz, who then put it on a silver platter for Zardes.
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The win over Nashville culminated a challenging week for coach Caleb Porter and his Crew, with seven players testing positive for COVID-19 and training severely limited ahead of the match.
“It was a very challenging week in a very challenging year,” Porter said postgame at MAPFRE Stadium Sunday. “I never had a week like this in my life, in my coaching career. 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.”
There's no doubt how important Zardes, Zelarayan, and Santos have been to Columbus's success rate this season, and the last two playoff matches have been no exception as both Zardes and Santos have totaled four goals combined to go with Zelarayan's three postseason assists.
Notably, Columbus is 5-0-0 when the Argentine provides a helper and an even better 6-0-0 when he scores. On top of that, the Crew is 9-1-2 this year when Zardes scores and 6-1-1 when Santos finds the back of the next.
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When it comes to the scouting report, Porter said that New England's No. 8 seed is not necessarily representative of their talent, and that similar to the Crew, mid-season injuries prevented them from reaching their full potential earlier on.
The Crew's mid-season slump and subsequent rise, though, has proved beneficial in its own right, Porter explained.
"There are a lot of hot teams right now ... but I think we are a hot team. We’ve won three in a row, we’ve won four out of the last five, and our players are full of confidence," said Porter. "We are defending well and we are scoring goals and that’s exactly the way you want it to happen. You want to be peaking at the right time in the postseason and that’s exactly what’s happened."
Sunday marks the first-ever postseason match between Porter and New England coach Bruce Arena. In 11 regular-season matches vs. Arena, all of which came between 2013 and 2016 while Porter led the Portland Timbers, Porter is 3-3-5 all-time against Arena.
New England Revolution
The road warriors did it again. After stunning Supporters' Shield winners Philadelphia, handing them their first defeat this season at Subaru Park, the Revs went to Exploria Stadium and upset Orlando City SC 3-1 in the Conference Semifinals Sunday.
As they did against the Union, the Revs struck for a pair of first-half goals in quick succession with Tajon Buchanan, whose transformation to right-back has been a Bruce Arena masterclass, setting up goals by Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou inside the opening half-hour. Bou, the Argentine forward who honored Diego Maradona after his first goal, added a late insurance goal which came after Matt Turner denied Nani from the penalty spot.
It was the club’s first playoff brace since Charlie Davies netted two goals against the New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final on Nov. 29, 2014.
"We’re conscious of the fact that it’s going to be tough for us, from the first playoff game. We didn’t get the seed that we wanted," Bou said through a translator after the match. "We classified for the playoffs as the eighth seed and we knew we’d have to play games on the road. Thank God things are going well for us right now. The team’s very strong both mentally and physically. We try to leave everything out on the field in every game."