Through Josh’s Eyes: The Lead-Up to MLS Cup 2020

[NOTE: To read earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE.]

On Monday, December 7, 2020, Josh Williams did what many Crew fans did. He watched the MLS Western Conference Final between the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders and the visitors from Minnesota United. Unlike other Crew fans, Josh was waiting to see who he was literally going to play in MLS Cup 2020.

As the Loons built a 2-0 lead on the road and carried it into the final quarter hour, Williams fixated on the preposterous production of Minnesota playmaker Emmanuel Reynoso, who had tallied one goal and seven assists in three playoff matches. The seven assists were already an MLS Cup playoff record for a single season and it would take an incredible defensive effort by the Crew to stall that number on the coming weekend.

And then it happened. Seattle got a goal from Will Bruin in the 75th minute. And then Raul Ruidiaz in the 89th minute. And then Gustav Svensson capped the comeback with a goal in the third minute of stoppage time. The mighty Seattle Sounders would be coming to Columbus aiming to win their third MLS Cup title in their fourth appearance in the last five years.

“The way Seattle came back, it was like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened,” Williams said. “I was immediately thinking about how they would be riding this incredible high.”

The Crew were no strangers to facing teams riding incredible playoff highs. They beat Nashville 2-0 in extra time after the expansion team stunned powerhouse Toronto FC on the road. In the Eastern Conference final, the Crew beat Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution squad that had not only toppled the Supporters’ Shield winners in Philadelphia, but also went on the road to beat Orlando.

“They were the hottest teams of that particular round,” Williams noted.

MLS Cup 2020 would be no different. The defending champion Sounders, fueled by the adrenaline of a comeback for the ages, would be coming to Columbus to stake an irrefutable claim as Major League Soccer’s newest dynasty.

The Crew had other ideas. But COVID-19 had other ideas for the Crew’s other ideas. After surviving an outbreak that impacted the roster for the prior two playoff rounds, most notably giving backup goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell a chance to shine with two shutouts in the place of COVID-stricken starter Eloy Room, the Crew’s starting lineup appeared to be back to full strength for MLS Cup. The week of training started out great.

“I just remember being so confident in what we were doing,” Williams said. “I can’t place my finger on exactly where that came from. I was talking to my grandparents, and there are things that happened throughout the week in training where we were so in sync. There are times where practice will go a certain way where guys are a little bit off or the flow of a drill isn’t the same as it normally should be. Then there are weeks where the flow is just good. Everybody’s in a better mood and everybody’s a little lighter. The ball is moving a bit better and it’s staying on the turf. It just seems like guys are a little more locked in. I feel like almost the whole playoffs were like that.”

Then the bomb dropped. Left winger Pedro Santos, who tallied six goals and eight assists in 22 games, along with midfield centerpiece Darlington Nagbe, possibly the Crew’s most important player, would have to miss MLS Cup due to COVID-19. Both had already come through with big playoff goals in the opening round matchup against the New York Red Bulls to set the tone for the Crew’s playoff run, and further clutch performances were being counted upon in MLS Cup. When the news reached the public, it caused a panic. The pundits, meanwhile, anointed Seattle as the heavy favorites on account of the Crew being down two big-time players.

If the Crew were to persevere, one would think intensely passionate head coach Caleb Porter would have to give the fiery pep talk of his life to lift a crestfallen squad. Maybe something straight out of Any Given Sunday or Braveheart or even the “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech from Animal House. He did nothing of the sort.

“What I liked about it was that Caleb didn’t do a huge rah-rah thing because people know you can’t replace Darlington,” Williams said. “You watch that guy play for two minutes and you know there’s nobody in the league that can replace that guy. So if Caleb were to give some big rah-rah speech about how Aidan was going to play like Darlington and Derrick was going to play like Pedro, I feel like everybody would have been like, ‘No, that’s not what’s going to happen because that’s not possible.’ We needed Aidan to go in there and do what he can do and just fill a role. We need Derrick to go in there and do what he can do and just fill a role, because that’s what Darlington and Pedro do—they fill a role. They aren’t going to win a game individually. So what made it good to me is Caleb just said, ‘Look, this happened. We’ve been dealing with things all year. The show goes on and we win it for them. We all feel bad for them because they aren’t able to compete, but the show goes on. We have to win, so next man up.’”

Despite the shock of the dispiriting news, Williams stayed locked in on Porter. He tried to exude calm and stoicism. His coach wasn’t visibly freaking out, so neither did he.

“I wanted everyone to treat it as business as usual because that’s what we had to deal with all season,” he said. “Eloy goes down and Tarbell steps up. Vito goes down, Bouba and I step up. So to me, what made it good and real is that Caleb didn’t try to stretch the truth. He didn’t try to do anything like that. It was just like, ‘This is what it is. Now deal with it. And I know we will because we’ve been doing it all season and I believe in you.’ To me, that’s all that needed to be said with this group.”

Internally, however, Williams battled multiple emotions.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say my initial reaction was, ‘What the hell, man? Like, of course. 2020. We get to this moment and Darlington and Pedro are out, and they are two of our better players. Dammit!’ But I remember there was this moment where Jona and I locked eyes, and maybe a couple other guys I looked at, and nobody had the reaction that we were screwed. It was never that.”

Williams not only worried about the health of his teammates and their families, but he also understandably feared for his own health and status for the big game.

“To me, I just felt so bad for those guys because they wouldn’t be able to experience it,” he said. “I was thinking about how if I had not been able to play, I would have been wrecked. I would have been crushed. Then I thought about how Pedro’s locker is next to mine, so then my thoughts were kind of selfish. Cads got it the week before and now Pedro had it, so I felt like it was closing in on me. I remember sitting there and thinking that if I don’t get to play in this game, I am going to lose my shit. There were so many things going through my head.”

Such human thoughts surely snaked their way through many a mind in the locker room, but one could never tell from what transpired on the practice pitch.

“The next day at training, Derrick was in and Aidan was in and the ball was moving,” he said. “I remember Aidan pinged a ball from one side to the other just about as clean as you can hit a ball, and I thought, ‘Damn, he’s locked in.’ I was thinking that if you’re scared or if you’re nervous about the possibility of playing, you’re not going to hit a ball like that. That’s not how that works. So there were little tells like that throughout the week that led me into not only thinking that we’re going to win—it’s instilled in me that I always think we’re going to win—but the way in which we’re going to win is going to be fun. I didn’t think it was going to be 3-0, but I didn’t think it was going to be a grind it out game either. In all honesty, I thought we were going to win going away.”

Even in Josh’s ultra-optimistic (yet questionably realistic) worldview, he knew the Crew’s defense had a tall task ahead. Seattle’s attacking trio of Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raul Ruidiaz torment opponents on a routine basis. The Sounders are so capable of lighting up the scoreboard that even a two-goal deficit with 15 minutes to play proved to be an insufficient impediment in the Western Conference Final.

“We watched them all year,” Williams said. “Everyone who watches American soccer knows what that trio is capable of. We just wanted to surround them with numbers and never give them room, so as soon as they get it, they’ve got someone on their back. They’ve got to play where they’re facing. Don’t let them get space.”

Such defensive work requires an abundance of desire, which Williams felt his teammates exuded. The Crew were eager to claim the title, whereas Seattle had won the year before, as well as in 2016.

“I knew coming into the game, and this was after they beat Minnesota and that game contradicts what I’m about to say, but after they’ve won it twice, I knew going in there was going to be an edge in hunger, in just wanting to get to the mountaintop. I thought we might have the edge in terms of hunger and wanting to be the top dog. But the way they beat Minnesota, I kept dancing back on that line of thinking because that was incredible. Only hungry dogs are going to win in that way. But I kept leaning into how Jona was talking and how everyone seemed locked in during training. There was a hunger building in us, especially being at home. We knew we were in a fortress.”

Even with the aura of that historic fortress on the fairgrounds getting one last marquee event, Crew fans were anxious about facing the Sounders without Nagbe and Santos. Among such nervous Crew fans was Josh’s dad, Steve, who wanted nothing more than the fairy tale of his son achieving the ultimate reward of a long, hard-fought career– winning an MLS Cup championship with their favorite club.

“I told him we’re still going to win,” Josh said. “That’s how I felt. I really felt that way. I felt that everything was aligning.”

Did it ever.

TUESDAY: Through Josh’s Eyes: The Game

******

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