Crew View: If it’s going to be a funeral, let’s make it a party

The Columbus Crew are going down fighting, but almost certainly going down

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew Nordecke section cheers before the start of their game against D.C. United at Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio on August 4, 2021.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The story when the Columbus Crew started this season was “the defending MLS Cup champions are opening a fancy new Downtown stadium.” Here, at the end, it feels like the defining narrative is “the Crew launched a widely derided rebrand and have a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs.”

So you’re saying there’s a chance? Yes, technically the Crew are still alive and kicking. Entering their regular season finale against the Chicago Fire — which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. this Sunday, Nov. 7, at Lower.com Field — Columbus could still advance to the postseason if a long list of variables goes its way. DC United must lose or draw at Toronto FC. CF Montreal must also lose or draw at home against Orlando City SC. The New York Red Bulls have to lose in Nashville. Columbus, of course, has to beat Chicago at home. And, oh yeah, the Crew also has to make up a seven-goal differential with the Red Bulls.

No matter the outcome, this scenario should make for an extremely fun and exciting Crew performance Sunday. Not only does Columbus have to win, they have to win big. They likely need to score four, five, maybe even six goals against the already-eliminated Fire to have a chance, all while counting on Nashville to crush NYRB. Although starting striker Gyasi Zardes is sidelined with an injury, the team has proven over the past month that it can generate offense via players like Lucas Zelarayán, Pedro Santos, and Miguel Berry. And Nashville SC are one of the best teams in the league, so despite New York’s recent hot streak, anything could happen down in Music City.

If the Crew somehow eke their way into the playoffs this weekend, it would be one of the most miraculous twists in franchise history, rivaling the success of the Save The Crew movement in terms of unlikeliness. But how did this team get to the point where it needs a miracle to advance? The Crew are 10th of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference. Many expected them to contend for the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the club with the best regular season record — a miscalculation on par with the front office’s belief that it would be a good idea to rename the team Columbus SC and swap out the classy circa 2014 crest for a severe C logo that looks extremely minor-league. (Fortunately they undid the name change, at least.) 

Injuries certainly have not helped the Crew’s cause. Before the regular season even began, Columbus lost promising teenage midfielder Aidan Morris to a season-ending ACL tear during CONCACAF Champions League play. The casualties piled up from there, with lots of key players missing significant time and two more — stud midfielder Artur and highly touted winger Kevin Molino — knocked out for the duration of the season. We never really saw what the team could do at full strength.

Beyond health concerns, the Crew simply did not play with sharpness and tenacity for most of the year. From the end of July to the middle of September, they could barely even manage to tie anyone. It was all-around bad soccer: conceding bad goals due to frequent mental errors, conceding control of the midfield, failing to attack with any kind of dynamism or creativity. A club record six-game losing streak sent them plummeting outside the playoff picture by the end of summer. Despite occasional flashes of last year’s mojo, they’ve continued to be inconsistent since, losing some key matches including a recent home contest against the Red Bulls that now looms large. Coach Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers teams declined significantly in the years after their 2015 MLS Cup win, and given the Crew’s uninspired performance this season, it’s fair to ask if history is repeating itself in Columbus. 

It hasn’t all been negative, though. Miguel Berry has emerged as a legitimate goal-scoring threat and could feasibly be the team’s starting striker someday. Recently acquired French defender Steven Moreira is a major upgrade at right back. Simply getting a full season of players like Artur, Morris, Milton Valenzuela and Josh Williams next year could change the picture significantly. But a team that looked stacked leading into 2021 suddenly seems in need of significant roster adjustments. The winger position in particular could use a revamp, as the combination of Santos, Molino, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne was frustratingly impotent all year. Santos commands a hefty Designated Player salary but only intermittently plays like a star; it would not be surprising to see the team part ways with him this winter.

Of course, if the impossible happens and the Crew sneaks into the playoffs, the picture won’t seem quite as dour. Before we move too deep into discussion of a rebuild for 2022, there is still a glimmer of hope for 2021. It’s a faint glimmer; setting aside the unlikelihood that all of the other results around the league will go the Crew’s way, I have my doubts about the team’s ability to annihilate Chicago this Sunday afternoon. But I’m excited to watch this Columbus team try to change the story of their season for the better this time.