When the shocking news broke Thursday evening that the Columbus Crew would be without the services of top-tier contributors Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos due to positive COVID-19 tests, many Ohio sports fans surely experienced a heavy dose of déjà vu. Sure, the specific circumstance of their absences is unique to these strange pandemic times, but from a competitive standpoint, the scenario has become old hat in the Buckeye state.
In 2014, the Ohio State Buckeyes football team was ranked #5 heading into the season. Then they lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, to a season-ending shoulder injury prior to the first game. Red-shirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped and led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record and a berth in the Big Ten Championship game before he too was lost for the season with a broken ankle. In stepped red-shirt sophomore Cardale Jones, who made the first start of his career with the conference title on the line. The Buckeyes demolished #11 Wisconsin 59-0 to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. In the first playoff game, Jones led the Buckeyes to a 42-35 upset of #1 Alabama. Then, in the National Championship Game, Jones and the Buckeyes trounced Oregon 42-20 to win it all despite the team needing its third-string quarterback to win the first three starts of his college career on the biggest stages imaginable.
In 2015, the Cleveland Cavaliers had assembled a “big three” of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Heading into the playoffs, there was genuine optimism that the Cavs could end the city’s 51-year major championship drought. Then, in the first round, Boston’s Kelly Olynyk yanked Love’s shoulder out of its socket, ending his season. Then Irving busted his kneecap in game one of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Without their second and third best players, the seemingly-doomed Cavs continued to fight and even managed to take a 2-1 lead on the Warriors before eventually succumbing in six games.
In 2016, the Cleveland Indians advanced to the World Series despite injuries to their #2 staring pitcher Carlos Carrasco and their All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley, and then, in the midst of the playoff run, they had to endure the infamous finger injury to #3 starter Trevor Bauer, who deeply lacerated the pinky on his pitching hand while working on a drone. A heavy underdog to the healthy Chicago Cubs, the scrappy Indians took the World Series to seven games before finally collapsing under the weight of playoff run that saw them overwork 2.5 starting pitchers while overtaxing the bullpen to make up for it.
That made three straight years in which an Ohio team had to play in the championship round while missing multiple players vital to their title aspirations. Leave it to the hellscape that is 2020 to resurrect that trend.
With a whiff of some infectious aerosols and a pair of positive test results, MLS Cup 2020 went from a heavyweight slugfest between a defending champion and an equally worthy challenger to a game in which the defending champion Seattle Sounders are now the definitive favorites.
The decimated 2015 Cavaliers and 2016 Indians were expected to have no chance against their superior opponents, but they still managed to win two and three games, respectively. The 2020 Columbus Crew need to win just one. And they need to do it in a low-scoring sport where all it can take is some internal resolve and a single moment of brilliance.
The Crew have already been through such tests in the playoffs. Starting goalkeeper Eloy Room missed two playoff rounds after a positive Covid test. His understudy, Andrew Tarbell, posted back-to-back shutouts against Nashville and New England as the Crew claimed the Eastern Conference title. During those same two matches, the Crew were without starting winger Derrick Etienne Jr, also due to Covid. His replacement, Luis Diaz, terrorized the playoff opposition on consecutive weekends.
And now the Crew will need to do it again in the biggest game against a most imposing opponent. Playing an MLS Cup against Brian Schmetzer’s Seattle Sounders is like a Super Bowl against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots or an NBA Finals against Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. However, if there was a coach made for this moment, it’s Caleb Porter. And he, in turn, feels if there was a team made for this moment, it’s his 2020 Columbus Crew.
“This is a very hungry team I’m coaching,” he said. “They’ve been hungry all year. Never been more proud of a team, their resiliency, the way they’ve come together, how much they give, the fact that they just keep rolling with the punches.
“I mean, this week’s no different with the players we’ve lost. I had to tell them at the end of training yesterday. I could look in their eyes. We’re going to do this for Pedro and Darlington. Nothing is going to stop us. You want to see that in your group. We know it’s a big challenge. We know we’re playing a very good team that’s, historically speaking, been one of the best teams in MLS history.”
But Columbus has overcome longer odds before. Resiliency was embedded in the club’s DNA by founder Lamar Hunt, who not only persevered through one failed American soccer league to be a leading light over a decade later in the founding of MLS, but who also endured a pair of stadium ballot box defeats in Central Ohio when the Crew were going to have no place to play. After the second election loss, Crew President and General Manager Jamey Rootes spied Hunt looking over a Columbus map for the next place to potentially build a stadium. When a hopeful Rootes asked if that meant the Crew weren’t going to leave Columbus, Lamar looked at him and said, ‘WHY in the WORLD would we do THAT?” A year later, Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) opened its doors as the first-soccer specific stadium in MLS. It was a turning point that helped save not only pro soccer in Columbus, but the fledgling league itself.
Nearly two decades later, when Anthony Precourt announced plans (er, “parallel paths”) to ship the Crew to Austin, Crew fans faced seemingly impossible odds. But like Lamar Hunt, they did not give up. WHY in the WORLD would they do THAT? Instead, they fought like hell and became the first American fan base to successfully fend off a franchise relocation. Their passion and commitment caught the eye of the Haslam and Edwards families, who not only bought the Crew, but have spared no expense in building a brand new soccer stadium in the Arena District, which Precourt had assured MLS and the world could never be done in a market like Columbus.
And now the heartbreakingly shorthanded 2020 Columbus Crew are expected to roll over for the juggernaut du jour from Seattle. WHY in the WORLD would they do THAT?
“The game is going to be decided on the day,” Porter said. “It’s going to be decided who plays best on the day, who makes plays, who executes. That’s going to be the story. We’re hoping to execute and perform and step up and find a way to win.”
All it takes is one moment of greatness. Anyone on the roster can be the hero when their number is called. And Porter likes it that way.
“When you look at the picture at the end of the year in 2020, everybody is in that picture, everybody plays a role, everybody plays a part. Some guys don’t play as many minutes, some guys just train, but everybody is celebrating at the end of the year. Everybody is a part of the legacy for that year.”
There could be no more immortal legacy than the recently-saved Columbus Crew next-man-upping their way to victory over the all-but-crowned Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup 2020.
For the fans.
For the city.
For each other.
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