Crew View: The More Things Change…

Chris DeVille
Caleb Porter

It's a familiar tale: The Portland Timbers come into Columbus as underdogs, go up by two goals in the first half, and hold on for the win despite the Crew pulling one back. It happened in MLS Cup 2015, when Caleb Porter was coaching Portland, and it happened again Saturday, with Porter leading Columbus against his old team for the first time.

Back then, the final score was 2-1. This time Portland nabbed an insurance goal at the end to finish things at 3-1. Admittedly, the stakes were much lower in this early season contest. That didn't stop Porter from waiting an unusually long time in the locker room — something like 25 minutes — before addressing reporters after the match. Perhaps he spent that extra time composing himself because he didn't show signs of frustration during his press conference.

Porter said the 3-1 score was not reflective of how well the Crew played for 70 of 90 minutes Saturday: “I don't think you can let that third goal take away from some of the positives in the game.”

That third goal did, however, ruin the MLS Cup 2015 parallel, which I have opted to force into this article anyway. And although Portland might not have been three times as good as Columbus last weekend, the score communicates a lot about where the Crew stands after eight matches.

By the time this goes online, the ninth will be underway — a home encounter with D.C. United the night of Wednesday, April 24. By then maybe new storylines will be sprouting. For now, Saturday's 3-1 loss reminds me that a team can't win unless it scores.

Columbus is averaging one goal per game so far, which has often worked out all right because the defense has been stout. You can't always count on a shutout, though, so watching countless opportunities evaporate has been maddening. The Crew looks dangerous, but the team shoots wide. It shoots high. It shoots straight at the keeper. The players regularly find ways to muff golden opportunities.

Before the season, Porter told me, “When you look at my teams, we usually score goals. A lot of goals.”

Instead, the Crew has maintained one of its worst tendencies from the Gregg Berhalter era: creating abundant chances but failing to convert them. Porter is not wrong to say Columbus had three or four times as many scoring chances Saturday, or that the Timbers “were very opportunistic with the chances that they had.” But his most resonant statement is that his team has to do better with these chances.

The players know it. Captain Wil Trapp said Saturday that working on offense in practice only goes so far. “When you get into a game, it's time to be ruthless,” he said. In the preseason Porter used the same word, saying he wanted the Crew to be “a little more ruthless” in 2019. How to instill that killer instinct may be this year's defining question. Fortunately for Porter, the season is still young.