Crew View: Saved the best for last

Chris DeVille
Head Coach Caleb Porter and defender Jonathan Mensah celebrate at Mapfre Stadium

When the final whistle blew Saturday night, Caleb Porter briefly wandered the sideline, overcome by emotion so intense it seemed his body could hardly contain it. Next time the TV cameras caught him, the Columbus Crew head coach was darting toward the Nordecke, the supporters’ section nestled in Mapfre Stadium’s northeast corner. Given the rowdy celebrations unfolding all over the stadium, you couldn’t hear Porter from the stands, but on the video feed you could quite clearly make out the explicit exclamation. 

Once the ceremony at midfield was complete and the Crew had been presented the MLS Cup for the second time in franchise history — having defeated the defending champion Seattle Sounders by a 3-0 score — the whole team and its staff made its way over to that same corner. There, they locked arms facing the crowd and sang the modified chorus that ends, “I can’t help falling in love with Crew.” They took turns lifting the trophy up toward the subset of their most hardcore fans who were able to obtain one of the 1,500 available tickets. Even as the party started to move to the locker room, Porter kept running back to the Nordecke, pumping his fists, basking in the adulation.

It made sense. Ascountless media outlets pointed out ahead of Saturday’s match, a grassroots fan campaign helped thwart the move to Austin envisioned by previous Crew investor-operator Anthony Precourt. Had they not gotten the ball rolling — creating massive public goodwill for their cause and inspiring powerful people to broker a series of unlikely deals — it’s fair to say there would be no more Columbus Crew today. So of course Porter was eager to show his gratitude, even if the pandemic ensured that only a fraction of the team’s most ardent supporters were present Saturday. (Some couldn’t get tickets, while others stayed home by choice for public health reasons.)

This was not Porter’s first time winning an MLS Cup at Mapfre, but his prior triumph didn’t go over nearly as well with Crew faithful. In 2015, Porter’s Portland Timbers defeated Columbus 2-1, leaving the local crowd shell-shocked. All week leading up to this showdown with Seattle, and again in his postgame press conference, Porter said he took the Crew job because he loves a good story — by which he means the #SaveTheCrew saga, but also his own narrative as it pertains to Columbus. He hoped to win this city a championship to make up for the one he denied us half a decade ago (not unlike Urban Meyer leading Ohio State to a football championship a few years after his Florida Gators stomped the Buckeyes in the BCS title game). As Porter put it, Crew fans were “never going to like me” unless the Black & Gold won it all on his watch.

On Saturday, they had plenty to like. Porter’s team was dominant from start to finish, completely neutralizing a team that had been heralded as a potential dynasty. In particular, Lucas Zelarayán, the Crew’s most expensive signing ever, lived up to his $8 million transfer fee with two goals and an assist, a performance that earned him MVP honors. Zelarayán was not always such a dynamic presence for the Crew this season; he missed some time with injuries and sometimes seemed less than 100 percent even when he did play. But he showed flashes of brilliance all year, and he shined brightest when it counted the most.

And yet the Crew was so much more than Zelarayán. Player after player stepped up with highlight moments. Right back Harrison Afful, one of precious few Crew players remaining from the 2015 team that fell to Porter's Timbers, served up masterful crosses all night, including the assist on Zelarayán’s opening goal. Not only was Luis Diaz a pest down the right flank as usual, he also took a break from firing off erratic shots to deliver a savvy assist on Zelarayán’s other score. After missing two games due to a positive COVID test, goalkeeper Eloy Room dove, smothered and swatted his way to a shutout, seemingly never breaking a sweat even on those rare occasions when Seattle’s offense started to click. From Artur to Gyasi Zardes to Milton Valenzuela, the hustle was astounding across the board.

MLS Cup was supposed to be a struggle for Columbus. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos, two of the team’s best players, weren’t even allowed in the stadium due to positive COVID tests. Turns out they were missed mainly on a sentimental level. Starting for Santos, winger Derrick Etienne Jr. scored the Crew’s second goal of the night, receiving a pass from Zelarayán on the left side of the box and curling a low ball around Seattle keeper Stefan Frei. Etienne’s goal was a victorious moment for a guy who has survived some of the worst 2020 had to offer, from being racially profiled by police twice in one day to testing positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile 19-year-old homegrown rookie Aidan Morris was boldly assertive in Nagbe’s holding midfield role, winning balls and progressing downfield with such authority that it was hard to believe he’d only learned two days earlier that he’d be starting. At a Crew playoff game on Halloween night 2017, just as the #SaveTheCrew movement was getting started, Morris and his Crew SC Academy teammates werephotographed in the Mapfre bleachers campaigning to save not just the club but its accomplished youth system. Three years later, here he was on the pitch, excelling in an MLS Cup final for the very-much-saved Crew, the youngest player to ever start an MLS Cup. “I’m just a kid kicking a ball around,” he told the media after the game. Don’t be surprised if you see that kid playing in Europe someday.

The evening’s mood was perhaps best summed up by the Crew’s pair of center backs. Jonathan Mensah, the captain, is a quietly dependable leader whose actions speak louder than his words. As the confetti fell Saturday, he wept — a profound display of emotion from a typically stoic man. Mensah later told reporters his tears were inspired by gratitude for the way Crew fans fought to keep their club: “For this to be possible today it’s by their efforts, their resiliency got us to where we are now to be able to accomplish this mission.”

Williams is a more colorful personality. An Ohio native and lifelong Crew fan, he was the first Columbus player to show up at Endeavor Brewing to celebrate with the fans in October 2018 when the news broke that the Haslam and Edwards families were negotiating to take over the team. He was also suspended for four games late this year for an unspecified violation of league rules. Dude’s a wild card, and in the wake of a championship he’d spent his whole life working toward, he went wild. During the postgame press conference, Williams emerged from the locker room with a bottle of champagne, sprayed Porter down and giddily instructed his coach to hurry up and rejoin the party.

After a few more questions, Porter happily obliged. In footage posted to the Crew’s social accounts, the sopping wet coach can be seen addressing his players in the locker room, victory medallion around his neck, White Claw in his hand. “We did it with a team! We did it with hunger! We did it with intensity!” Porter announces. After a dramatic pause, he exclaims, “And we’re CHAMPIONS!” And with that another deluge of cheers and beverages begins.