After last Saturday’s last-gasp collapse that resulted in 1-1 draw in Vancouver, rather than a 1-0 victory, Columbus Crew coach Caleb Porter lamented, “If we could see out a game this year we’d be in the playoffs.”
They couldn’t and they aren’t. The Crew were officially eliminated from the playoffs on Wednesday night, ironically because the Portland Timbers couldn’t see out a game. The New England Revolution scored in the 97th minute to earn a 2-2 draw, cementing the Crew’s fate as a non-playoff team.
Just because it happens to other teams too doesn’t make the facts behind Porter’s quote any less sobering. On six different occasions the Crew have conceded a goal in the 84th minute or later that resulted in a cumulative total of NINE dropped points. And that’s not even counting the crazy Hell is Real home match that from the 90th minute onward saw Gyasi Zardes sky a close-range shot over an empty net, David Accam hit the goalpost, and then Zardes recover to put two sure goals on frame only to be robbed by acrobatic saves. That match ended in a tie, so that was two points left wanting, but it doesn’t really match the general concept of what we’re dealing with here. I just mention it because it’s another example of how the closing moments of games have not been kind to Columbus from a coulda-woulda-shoulda perspective.
A quick rundown of the calamities…
May 25: A corner kick clearance falls to the foot of Colorado’s Nicolas Mezquida just outside the 18-yard box. He takes a touch to his left and then hits a right-footed shot into the upper corner of the net. A 2-2 road draw turns into a 3-2 loss thanks to that 89th minute goal. (Points dropped: 1)
July 6: A deep throw-in by Seattle skims off the head of defender Alex Crognale and across the Crew’s goalmouth where an unmarked Nicolas Lodeiro has an easy finish to give the Sounders a 96th minute game-winner in Columbus. That’s the second time a guy named Nicolas stole points from the Crew. Uncanny. (Points dropped: 1)
July 13: In the 84th minute, Orlando pulls off a 2-on-4 break that still sees Benji “Nicolas” Michel unmarked at the six yard box for a one-time finish on a low cross from the flank. A 0-0 draw turned into a 1-0 road loss. (Points dropped: 1)
August 17: The Crew held a 2-1 lead at home over Toronto until the 90th minute when Jozy “Nicolas” Altidore scored on an unchallenged header from six yards out. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. (Points dropped: 2)
August 31: The Crew led Chicago 1-0 in stoppage time, but then the Fire sent a low cross through a crowd of bodies, where it found Przemyslaw “Nicolas” Frankowski completely unmarked from eight yards out. He slotted the ball into the net with his left foot. The 94th minute goal resulted in a 1-1 tie. (Points dropped: 2)
September 21: Needing just one final clearance to preserve a 1-0 road win in Vancouver, the Crew had six field players and a goalkeeper in the box to defend Vancouver’s cross in the final seconds of stoppage time. Alas, Freddy “Nicolas” Montero outjumped the smaller Connor Maloney and headed in a 94th minute equalizer. (Points dropped: 2)
When you add it all up, if the Crew attained perfection in seeing out those games, they’d have 44 points. They’d be two points ahead of New England for the final playoff berth and three points behind D.C. United for the opportunity to host a playoff game.
Instead, they are eliminated.
Contemplating this series of inopportune point donations, I immediately thought back to 2003. If you think Squanderpalooza 2019 is frustrating, here’s a history lesson.
In 2003, the Crew let twelve points slip away in the 77th minute or later. (If we change it to the 84th minute to match 2019, it was an identical nine points.)
EIGHT of those points were lost from August onward, including a stretch of three straight games that resulted in four points dropped in eight days from August 9-16. The middle game of that stretch saw Chicago’s Damani Ralph score the MLS Goal of the Year when he silenced the Crew Stadium crowd by popping a ball up to himself and smoking a wicked turnaround volley under the crossbar from 18 yards out.
Then there was the September 20 game at the Meadowlands when John Wolyniec earned a Goal of the Year Finalist nomination when he lasered an over the shoulder volley off of a 50-yard long ball into the upper 90 for a golden goal winner with a minute to play in overtime. As you can see from this clip, it was a Goal of the Decade nominee.
The next weekend, on September 28, the Crew held a 2-1 lead in New England, but coughed up a Shalrie Joseph equalizer in the 81st minute. Okay, that’s frustrating. But then, in the 97th minute, Joey Franchino, who would score all of five goals in his 11-year MLS career, hit a long-range bomb for a golden goal winner. This goal was also a Goal of the Year finalist. (I don’t remember the other pertinent one, but I distinctly remember that four of the five GOTY finalist were scored against the Crew in 2003, and as noted here, three of them cost the Crew points at the end of games. It was insane.)
And none of this even counts the game the Crew surrendered an equalizer in the sixth minute of second half stoppage time in the penultimate weekend at D.C. United, but went on to win on a Brian McBride header in golden goal overtime. No points were technically dropped that afternoon, despite another late goal that could have altered the outcome.
In the end, after the 2003 Crew dropped 12 points in the 77th minute or later, including eight of those points from August 9 onward, they missed the playoffs by….wait for it…
A preseason MLS Cup favorite missed the playoffs entirely by bleeding 12 late-game points. Those points would have put them in second place, just two points off from the Supporters’ Shield.
Thinking back to that 2003 team when contemplating the 2019 team, I knew the man I needed to talk to was former Crew goalkeeper Jon Busch. As demonstrably intense as he was on the field, it’s impossible that anyone could have felt the sting of those late goals more than Buschy did every time he had to pick the ball out of the net.
“I’ve tried to black those memories out,” he said with a laugh. Alas, the 2019 Crew have bubbled up some latent trauma, even before I cruelly sent him a clip of the Wolyniec goal to refresh his memory of 2003.
“I’ve watched a couple of those games this year and it does give you flashbacks,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’ You can see the frustration on the players’ faces and you know what they’re going through because you’ve been through it. It’s a tough situation to go through repeatedly. It does wear on you.”
While the 2019 Crew haven’t suffered a rash late-game Goal of the Year candidates like in 2003, Busch said there are still multiple factors that go into a pattern of late-game collapses.
“Luck comes into it,” he said. “Mentality comes into it, knowing how to finish games out, kicking the ball into the stands or getting it down the field, and that sort of thing. It’s a mentality of how to win games or pick up points. It’s a confidence thing, just like when you’re on a winning streak. When you’re on a winning streak, everything rolls in the positive direction, and then when you’re on the bad side of things and this keeps happening, it starts to spiral and you’re like, ‘Oh god, not this again.’ So you can get into that rut as well. You’re just like, ‘Gosh, it’s going to happen again.’ So that’s the mental side of it. It’s frustrating for the players. I know it was frustrating for us that year, especially having such a good year before and being predicted to be an MLS Cup contender. I think the biggest thing for us was that we knew we needed to stick together, whether it was the players, or the players and the coaches, and even the fans as well. It was just one of those years. Sometimes you just have those years where the bounce of the ball just doesn’t go your way. ”
Thinking back to the spate of 2003 disasters, Busch said they key to get out of the rut is unity without pointing fingers.
“What you learn is that you have to keep grinding and keep fighting and stick together,” he said. “No matter how frustrating it is, it’s not on one player or one person. It’s a collective team, and to be able to get out of it, you’ve got to stick together, from the staff to the players to everybody. Everyone has to keep working to correct it.”
Just because the 2019 season is lost, it doesn’t necessarily portend bad things for 2020. The 2019 Crew were pegged by many to be a playoff team, and it’s those lost points that are keeping them out, just as the 2003 Crew were pegged to be an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield contender and it was their lost points that kept them out. That earlier Crew team rebounded to actually win the Supporters’ Shield the following year.
“We knew in that time period that we had a quality team,” he said. “If you look at the players on that team, we had quality players, so we knew that 2003 we were better than the outcomes dictated. We just had to go through that bump in the road. The nice thing about MLS is that you can hit that reset button and get a fresh start in the offseason and turn it around pretty quickly. And that’s what we did the following year. We had the quality to do it and we forgot about 2003 and said it was fresh start. Obviously, things went the way they should and in a positive direction that year.”
Without it being “one of those years” at the end of games, the Crew returned to their expected level in 2004. The same could be true of the 2019 Crew heading into 2020.
“You look at it, and on paper, they have a decent team,” Busch said. “What they’re capable of is much higher than what the results are showing right now. The level is there and can be there, so how do we get it out of them? How do we get them back to where they could be? They’ve had injuries this year that have obviously put them in tough spots, but they have enough talent to be higher than where they are for sure.”
In other words, if they could see out a game this year, they’d be in the playoffs.
2020 awaits, unencumbered by late-game baggage.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.