Crew View: Three glimmers of hope amid the Crew’s late summer slump

There are still a few reasons to believe the struggling MLS Cup champs could turn things around in time to save their 2021 campaign

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew forward Miguel Berry has been a bright spot amid the team's recent slump.

It’s a miserable time to be a Columbus Crew fan.

In the last edition of this column, I handed out midseason grades to the Crew’s position group. Things were looking OK. After somehow eking out wins and draws with a depleted roster, Columbus had recently suffered their first loss in more than a month at New York City FC. They remained on track to defend last year’s MLS Cup win in this year’s postseason, if not exactly contenders to repeat.

Since then, the Crew’s season has taken a disastrous turn. That defeat in NYC became the start of a club record six-game losing streak that sent Columbus plummeting out of playoff position. After they finally stopped the bleeding with a come-from-behind victory over FC Cincinnati in the home leg of this year’s Hell Is Real rivalry, the Crew promptly returned to its losing ways over Labor Day weekend in Orlando. A crippling wave of injuries has contributed to the downward spiral, but so has a lack of urgency, creativity and mental sharpness. It’s not been fun to watch.

Columbus now sits at eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 27 points and a 7-10-6 record. Several teams above and below them in the standings have games in hand. The top seven teams in the conference qualify for the postseason, so all is not lost in Crewville, but they’re going to need to start winning consistently if this season is to be redeemed. They’ll have three chances in quick succession coming up.

First, Columbus will visit Inter Miami CF this Saturday, Sept. 11. Miami, an expansion team that joined MLS last year, sits a point below the Crew in the Eastern Conference standings, albeit with two games in hand. Former Columbus star Federico Higuaín, who now comes off the bench for Miami, is out with a quad injury, but his more famous brother Gonzalo — who used to suit up for European powers Real Madrid, Napoli and Juventus — will be looming.

Next up is a rare Tuesday match at home against the New York Red Bulls on Sept. 14. The Red Bulls are even farther down the table than Miami, so this is as close to a must-win as you’ll see on the remaining Columbus schedule — but at this point the Crew can’t afford anything but a win any time they play at home, regardless of how good or bad their opponent is.

Then, on Saturday, Sept. 18, Columbus will travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts, to face the league-leading New England Revolution. This one is daunting. The Revs are 10 points ahead of the next closest club. They look like a lock to win the Supporters’ Shield. Coach Bruce Arena, who has led multiple franchises to MLS Cups, may have MLS originals New England ready to win the league at long last. What’s more, the Revs came into Field on opening day and ruined the Crew’s fun, scoring the first two goals of the match and ending up with a draw. Revenge for that result may be what Caleb Porter needs to lean on to secure any kind of points next weekend.

OK, so things are looking bleak, but all is not lost. Is there any reason to believe the Crew could actually turn things around in time to save their 2021 campaign? Here are three.

1. A handful of injured players are about to return.

The depletion of the roster this season cannot be understated. The team has been without meaningful contributors such as Artur, Milton Valenzuela and Josh Williams for most of the year. Perry Kitchen just had back surgery. Kevin Molino suffered the third ACL tear of his career, knocking him out until the middle of 2022. Aidan Morris tore his own ACL just minutes into the season. The list of players who’ve been sidelined for health reasons goes on and on. Sometimes Lucas Zelarayán has seemed to be out there all by himself.

But Porter started this month by promising that defensive studs Williams and Valenzuela would return from their long layoffs soon, as would striker Gyasi Zardes, a player whose presence makes an immediate impact on the Crew attack. By the time Jonathan Mensah is cleared to return from quarantine following his international duty for Ghana, Columbus will be trotting out a much more trustworthy, dynamic lineup.

2. Miguel Berry is an emerging talent up top.

Berry, a 23-year-old forward who spent much of the past year on loan to the Crew’s USL affiliate in San Diego, has been proving his worth for the main club this summer. After notching his first MLS goal with the tying strike in Cincinnati back in July, Berry scored two more against Cincinnati back home on Aug. 27 to complete a come-from-behind win in the waning minutes. He’s been one of the only players to convert for Columbus lately, and the Crew will need timely goals if they’re going to dig themselves out of this hole.

Will Berry become an elite striker? Probably not, but he definitely has potential to become something like Zardes, a talented scrapper who manages to find the net when it’s needed most. With his fellow backup attacker Bradley Wright-Phillips nearing retirement, Berry could be a key component of the Crew roster for years to come. He just needs to prove he can score against teams other than FC Cincinnati.

3. Sports are a streaky business.

If Columbus had to suffer through a slump, it was better to slump in the summer, leaving plenty of time to build momentum for a postseason run throughout the fall. Some of us are old enough to remember the inaugural 1996 season, when the Crew languished in last place for most of the year before winning nine of its last 10 games and qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the season. Until you’re mathematically eliminated, it’s never too late to turn things around.

After slogging through an ugly stretch of results, Columbus is still only a couple of wins beyond playoff pace with 11 league matches left to play. If they can get out of their funk, their fans might have an exciting autumn ahead. Admittedly, that’s a big “if.” This year’s Crew has never played like the champions we witnessed last November and December. But the same core of players remains, and there’s a nonzero chance of them recapturing that magic. At this point, even showing some fight down the homestretch would go a long way toward wiping the grimaces off their supporters’ faces.