Caleb Porter couldn’t hold it in any longer.
When the final whistle blew, making official the Columbus Crew’s 3-0 MLS Cup final win over the Seattle Sounders, he sprinted over to the Nordecke — the corner of MAPFRE Stadium where, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Crew’s hardcore fans congregate — and let loose with a full-throated “F— yeah!”
One couldn’t blame him in the slightest. This was a year when COVID-19 threatened to upend the entire season. After racing out to a 9-1-3 record, the Crew persevered through a spate of injuries in September and October that saw them win only once in seven games. When the playoffs started, the Crew dealt with eight positive tests for COVID-19.
Then, with the championship finish line in sight, Columbus sustained two more positive tests, to midfielder Darlington Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos. That figured to be one obstacle too many against a Seattle side aiming for its third MLS Cup triumph in five years.
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But Porter wasn’t about to allow his players to feel sorry for themselves, and in a season many have said should have an asterisk attached to it, the Crew finished it off with an exclamation mark instead. For Porter, that is down to the day-to-day culture that has been established in Columbus, Ohio.
“When we have adversity — and I say this all the time — you can be PTSD, or you can be PTG, and PTG is post-traumatic growth,” he said after Saturday’s emphatic triumph.
“And I actually believe that you grow more than ever in adversity. I’ve grown more than ever. This year, my team and my players have grown more than ever. And so when we have adversity like this week, we use it the right way. We handle it the right way, because [in ] life, there’s a lot of adversity, there’s a lot of ups and downs. You get bloodied.”
Not even Seattle’s considerable championship pedigree was going to stand in the way of Porter and his players.
“We were not going to let history, the past, determine today,” Porter said. “This is our year; this is going to be our year. It was going to be our game is going to be our trophy. And that was a message before the game.”
Lucas Zelarayan was the game’s clear MVP, scoring twice and assisting on the third. But it was Porter who pushed all the right buttons. On the day, just about every single Columbus player excelled. That included 19-year-old Aidan Morris, who was making just his third start of the season in the center of midfield. Alongside the veteran savvy of Artur, the two effectively shackled Seattle playmaker Nico Lodeiro for most of the night.
“Any good team in the world, they have a guy that’s gonna win balls,” Porter said. “And [Morris] won a ton of balls today, so did Artur. Those two guys were key today against Lodeiro and that exceptional midfield.”
Porter’s decision to go with two burners out wide in Derrick Etienne and Luis Diaz paid off as well, as both players provided some heft to the Crew’s attack. But perhaps Porter’s biggest score of all was his approach at the start of the game. Columbus came out aggressively, winning a series of corners and always looking threatening in transition.
It was no surprise, then, when Zelarayan opened the scoring in the 25th minute and Etienne added Columbus’ second six minutes later. It allowed the Crew to dictate the game’s terms, even as Seattle had more of the ball.
Seattle came into the match more in the second half, and came close to scoring through a Lodeiro shot in the 66th minute and a header from Jordan Morris that was superbly saved by Columbus keeper Eloy Room. But it was left to Zelarayan to put the finishing touches on the victory, firing home after good work on the right wing from Diaz.
“Ideally if you tell me how I want to play, we’re gonna be up the field with the ball for the whole game and press, possess, and when we don’t have control counterpressure,” Zelarayan said.
“But if we have to, we can plan transition. If we have to, we can play in a low block. And there’s nothing wrong with that and that’s good tactical football.”
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In many ways it was a fairy-tale finish for the Crew, if such a thing is even possible amid the suffering the pandemic has wrought. It was three years ago that the plans to relocate the team to Austin, Texas, emerged, only for the Crew fans and the Columbus business community to rally and convince the league to keep the team in central Ohio. That yielded new owners in Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who in turn brought in general manager Tim Bezbatchenko as well as Porter.
The deeper pockets and new vision brought in a player such as Zelarayan as well. When the Argentine arrived prior to this season, he brought with him a reputation for inconsistency that left Liga MX side Tigres more than willing to part ways with him. That changed under Porter.
“This year I accomplished becoming the player that I knew I could be,” Zelarayan said via an interpreter.
And for those who have been through the roller-coaster ride of the past three years, such as defender Jonathan Mensah, the win held extra significance — and tears — after the final whistle.
“It was just me thinking about what the fans and the community and everyone behind the ‘Save the Crew’ movement,” he said. “For this to be possible today, it’s by their efforts and their fight off the field; their determination and resiliency kind of got us to where we are now, for us to accomplish this mission.”
When Porter arrived prior to the start of the 2019 campaign, he felt he owed Crew fans a trophy given that his MLS Cup triumph in 2015 with the Portland Timbers came at the Crew’s expense. But even beyond that, Porter brought with him the inner drive that has been a staple since he first became an assistant coach at Indiana University back in 2000.
“I hate losing, and there’s nothing I hate more in life. I’m scared of failure; I’m scared of losing and I hate it,” he said. “So that drives me every day.”
Now he can bask in the satisfaction of winning another MLS Cup for himself, and for the city of Columbus.