A four-match winless streak ends with a playoff-clinching victory

The past month has been a sobering reality check for Columbus Crew SC.

For a while there the Crew seemed to be enjoying a charmed season. Even when things went wrong, everything went right. The wins just kept coming, often by wide margins. An unflappable Columbus was cruising to a first-place finish.

The positive momentum halted abruptly with a Sept. 27 away match against Toronto FC. Despite playing in Connecticut because Canada isn’t allowing MLS competition right now due to the pandemic, Toronto soundly defeated Columbus, coming from behind to score three unanswered second half goals in a 3-1 victory. This began a string of three losses, one draw, and one postponement due to multiple Crew soccer operations staffers testing positive for COVID-19. The Crew wouldn’t win again until Sunday’s home match against New York City FC, a 3-1 victory that clinched a playoff spot and — the Black and Gold hope — represents a stemming of the tide.

What caused the recent skid? For one thing, nagging injuries have sidelined the spine of the team: attacking maestro Lucas Zelarayán, central midfield glue Darlington Nagbe and starting goalkeeper Eloy Room. It was only a matter of time before these absences were felt. Yet Columbus was winning without that talented trio before its slump, and it won without them again Sunday. More than the physical toll of injuries, the Crew seemed to suffer from a loss of swagger after the loss to Toronto. Belying the many locker room quotes about putting past failures behind them, the team was clearly in a funk — likely exacerbated by some false positive COVID-19 tests among the players, revealed by Coach Caleb Porter in his postgame comments Sunday.

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Just when things were at their bleakest, following a loss to lowly FC Cincinnati last week, off-field factors amplified the October gloom. On Saturday the Supporters’ Shield Foundation — the coalition of MLS fans who award the Supporters’ Shield to the team with the best regular season record each year — announced that it would not hand out the trophy this year, citing the highly irregular competition schedule that emerged in the wake of coronavirus and “the inability for supporters to be in attendance and fill their stadiums with passion.”

Response to this announcement was resoundingly negative, including from Toronto coach Greg Vanney, who told reporters, “My players are pissed. It is a huge sign of disrespect to the players.” (No one from the Crew has yet commented publicly.) Many supporters clubs around the league claimed they weren’t consulted on the decision. Despite the recent run of bad form, the Shield is still very much within the Crew’s reach — they sit four points behind Toronto with five matches left — so Columbus fans were among the loudest objectors online.

Fans finally had reason to cheer again Sunday, albeit not without some suspense. After the latest Pedro Santos rocket put Columbus up 2-0 in the 50th minute, NYC responded five minutes later, taking advantage of poor Crew defending on a corner kick to cut the lead to 2-1. They continued barraging Columbus the rest of the game while Crew attackers let their own breakaways fizzle into nothingness. Columbus held on, though, capping things off with a Gyasi Zardes penalty kick goal in stoppage time. 

Even that didn’t come easy; Sean Johnson blocked Zardes’ initial shot, and the striker had to score on the rebound. But after the recent rough patch, the Crew will happily take the goal, the win and the postseason berth. “We’ve had a really, really tough couple weeks,” Porter said after the match. “For our guys to battle through that and stick together and be able to show up and have a performance like they had really makes me proud, and it shows that we have that mettle that we’ve been looking for, that mental toughness, that grit.”