Crew View: The weirdest playoff run ever rolls on

Chris DeVille
Pedro Santos celebrates his goal against Nashville SC

Gyasi Zardes hustled toward the endline as hard as I’ve ever seen a soccer player hustle. The man was chasing a through ball from Lucas Zelarayan down the left flank, but he moved like he himself was being chased, like the Nashville SC players were monsters and his life was in danger if he didn’t stay one step ahead.

Even when he slowed down slightly to control the ball, there was an urgency to the Crew striker’s every step. He clearly recognized that this 0-0 playoff game was in extra time, and that with starting goalkeeper Eloy Room sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test, a penalty shootout would be suboptimal. Time was of the essence. So Zardes raced to the edge of the box and sent a pass back across the goalmouth, where Pedro Santos was hurtling forward with similar runaway-train energy. 

Santos took care of the rest: a one-touch rocket to the bottom right corner of the net, delivered with such force that it briefly sent his body toppling over. The Portuguese midfielder barely broke his stride, picking himself up off the Mapfre Stadium turf and darting toward the corner. To celebrate his goal, Santos slid on both knees toward the Nordecke, the northeast bleachers where normally a few thousand of the Crew’s most devoted fans would be gathered to cheer on the team they love. Sunday night, those stands sat empty. Santos was triumphantly sliding in the general direction of no one.

This was the kind of electric playoff moment that demanded an uproarious fan response. Instead, it happened in a nearly empty stadium. Such is the awkward bargain you strike to keep professional sports going when a pandemic is spiraling out of control. The Crew had been allowing 1,500 masked, socially distanced fans per match before Franklin County crossed over into Level 4, indicating “severe exposure and spread.” This downturn in public health aligned with the start of the MLS playoffs, ensuring that the Crew faithful would be locked out of Mapfre for the facility’s final postseason run. (A new Downtown stadium is opening next summer, and ticket reps have been telling fans the schedule will be back-loaded so that every 2021 home game is played there.)

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In the context of an outbreak that has been killing 1,500 Americans per day, it’s hard to view playoff soccer with no fans as some great tragedy. If you care about the Crew, you’re lucky they’re playing at all right now after the pandemic paused the season for four months — really lucky, regarding Sunday’s Nashville clash in particular, given that seven Columbus players tested positive for coronavirus in the week leading up to the match. All week long, Crew supporters were freaking out, wondering if their club’s quest for a second MLS Cup might end with a forfeit against the expansion team that stole its color scheme.

Two days beforehand, Coach Caleb Porter assured reporters that the doctors had signed off on playing the game. But after seeing the NFL bend over backwards to keep postponing the Steelers-Ravens game rather than cancel it due to an ever worsening COVID outbreak in the Baltimore locker room — originally set for Thanksgiving, the game was bumped to Sunday, and then to Monday, and then to today, and then to tomorrow afternoon — it’s natural to be skeptical about pro sports leagues’ rationale for carrying on. As it stands, we’re getting the surreal and somewhat depressing spectacle of a Columbus Crew playoff campaign playing out entirely at home, entirely without the fan support that usually entails. 

Thanks to a series of upsets, the third-seeded Crew keeps facing lower-seeded Eastern Conference foes and avoiding a road trip. After dispatching the New York Red Bulls 3-2 two weekends ago, Columbus beat Nashville 2-0 in Sunday’s conference semifinal (Zardes tacked on a second goal just four minutes after assisting Santos, though he was clearly offside). Now they’ll face the eighth-seeded but suddenly white-hot New England Revolution — led by MLS veteran, former U.S. men’s national team coach and longtime Crew nemesis Bruce Arena — in the Eastern Conference Final this Sunday, Dec. 6. The winner moves on to MLS Cup, which also might be hosted in an empty Mapfre depending on how the bracket plays out.

Will the Crew end its alternately distressing and inspiring 2020 by advancing to a championship match that could double as a bizarre grand finale for the league’s first soccer-specific stadium? Or will that stadium be closed out a week beforehand with a loss to a team whose snooty coach once compared MLS matches at Ohio Stadium to a circus? Barring a major change in team policy, you likely can’t be there in person Sunday, so tune in at 3 p.m. on ABC to find out. Triumph or travesty, it’s sure to be strange.