The Crew winger has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season
A new season of Stranger Things hit Netflix earlier this month, so maybe, like a portal to another dimension, the window has reopened for this reference: This has been the Columbus Crew season from the Upside Down.
During the #SaveTheCrew saga we became accustomed to this team as a feel-good underdog story. Columbus was a small-market franchise largely without stars, facing potential relocation, yet through tenacity and meticulous organization they scraped together a winning record and a playoff run. Every win, literal or sentimental, felt like a middle finger to a carpetbagging investor-operator and the league office that was egging him on with all the verve of that ubiquitous Jack Nicholson gif.
Now the Crew has beloved Ohio-based owners and is putting down lots of new roots in Columbus with hearty public approval from MLS Commissioner Don Garber. There is very little left to rage against. At the same time, the Crew has been terrible. The team just became the first MLS squad to rattle off 13 losses in 15 games since the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny, a franchise that ceased to exist after that season.
One of the only bright spots in this disappointing year has been the play of Pedro Santos. That in itself is an extension of 2019’s inverted quality because up until now Santos has been a disappointment.
Santos, a 31-year-old winger from Portugal, came on board two summers ago as a Designated Player, meaning he can be paid above the salary cap. (MLS invented the DP when David Beckham came to the league; each squad now gets three.) At the time, coach Gregg Berhalter promised, “When you talk about making the final pass, making the final shot, he has that ability.”
That did not prove to be the case. In 2017, Santos recorded no goals and two assists in nine appearances. In 2018, his first full season, he recorded a respectable seven assists but just one goal in 30 appearances.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Santos developed a reputation for whiffing on big chances and falling down on the job (sometimes literally, on both counts). He wasn’t one of those players whose value isn’t reflected on the stat sheet; he was just underperforming. Columbus could seemingly find a better player to invest big bucks in.
This year something has changed. Maybe new coach Caleb Porter’s more direct attacking approach suits him. Maybe he’s finally acclimated to Columbus. In interviews, Santos has struggled to articulate why or how he’s elevated his game. Whatever the reason, in 20 appearances so far, he has five goals and two assists and has consistently been dangerous.
Santos is the Crew’s second leading goal scorer behind Gyasi Zardes. Subjectively, he’s playing with more focus, precision and purpose. At times, he has seemed like a pro among amateurs, bringing energy and flair to an otherwise blasé Columbus offense. Whether out on the flank or taking over as central playmaker for the injured Federico Higuain, he has produced.
Remarkably, the death of Santos’ father last month has not derailed this positive momentum. Two Saturdays ago, in a dreary home loss to Seattle, Santos again provided the silver lining, drawing and converting a penalty to go up 1-0. In the process, he ended the Crew’s 313-minute scoreless streak. Naturally, Columbus ended up blowing the lead. Despite the return of Zardes and Wil Trapp from national team duty, the team lost again last weekend in Orlando, dominating a scoreless game and then conceding a goal in the 84th minute.
Will the losing streak continue this Wednesday night in Chicago? What about Saturday at home against Montreal? The Crew has exhibited no evidence to the contrary. But chances are if Columbus does snap out of this funk, Santos will have something to do with it. If that seems like a bizarre twist, well, stranger things have happened.
Correction: An earlier version of this column said that the Saturday game was in Montreal, but it's actually a home game.