Crew View: Can Columbus find shelter from the storm?

It may be too early to give up on this season, but, ugh

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew fans wait under the concourse as severe weather delayed the start of the home match against Los Angeles FC at Field on Saturday, May 21.

Metaphors don’t get much more blunt than the storm that rolled into town Saturday afternoon and ruined what could have been a big showcase match for the Columbus Crew.

An announced season-high crowd of 19,649 was at Field to watch Columbus face Carlos Vela and Western Conference contenders LAFC in a nationally televised afternoon showdown. With the scheduled 3:30 p.m. start time, a lot of young children were surely among the throng, some of them probably taking in their first MLS match. But the clouds kept bursting and lightning kept striking, so we waited. When the game finally kicked off at 6:42 p.m., it was paused again by another weather delay less than three minutes later — not exactly the kind of experience that converts kids into fans for life.

Things got going for real just before 8 o’clock, but anyone still present witnessed a scoreless first half, one of those classic 2022 Crew performances where Caleb Porter swears his team played well despite their repeated egregious failures to put the ball in the net. (Technically, the ball did go in the net once in the 22nd minute, but Yaw Yeboah was ruled offside.) Then came a second half in which, following yet another disallowed Yeboah goal, two gnarly errors by the typically stellar Darlington Nagbe resulted in LAFC goals in the 62nd and 73rd minutes. After all that waiting and countless missed chances for Columbus, it was another deflating result for a team that just can’t seem to get it together.

In late April, I wrote that the vibes around this year’s Crew were “extremely unpleasant.” Some in the press box at the April 30 game against D.C. United were speculating about whether it would be Porter’s last with the team. That night turned out to be a rousing success for Columbus, a 3-0 trouncing of D.C. that felt like it could be a turning point, so the #sackporter contingent were silenced for a while. The renaissance continued to some extent May 7 at New England, where the Crew came from behind to secure a 2-2 draw. A point on the road is generally considered a positive result, but Columbus had originally been winning 1-0, so there was also a pessimistic way to spin that one.

Ensuing shutout losses to NYC FC and LAFC have further fueled the fires of negativity. Even if both of the Crew’s last two opponents are currently among the MLS elite, this Columbus team — the one that brought back the core of its 2020 MLS Cup championship roster, once again healthy and ready to compete — was supposed to be elite, too. Instead, as we round the corner into summer, the 12th-place Crew are no closer to the playoff picture than they were a month ago (in case you’re wondering why this month’s column feels like a slightly bleaker echo of last month’s).

A generous read is that the season feels like it’s slipping away. You might get a more despairing verdict from those who’ve sunk deep into the dissonance between the endless “we’ll get ‘em next time” locker-room clichés and the Crew’s impotent performances. Objectively, with 22 matches still left to play, there remains some hope to cling to. Advanced statistics like “expected goals” suggest the Crew is not as far off track as they seem. Still, even the most meticulous number-crunching can feel like sports-fan magical thinking when a team is stuck in a funk like this one. If analytics confirm Columbus has played better than its record indicates, doesn’t that also imply there’s something psychologically wrong?

When Porter arrived in Columbus at the start of 2019, in the immediate aftermath of the successful Save The Crew movement, he brought with him confidence, swagger and a promise to coach entertaining, attacking soccer after half a decade of cerebral, possession-oriented Gregg Berhalter teams. Two seasons into his tenure, the Crew lifted the cup — something Berhalter, who just oversaw a successful World Cup qualifying run for the U.S. men’s national team, never achieved with the Crew.

Less than two years on from that triumph, Porter’s team gets blanked half the time. At press conferences he looks shell-shocked and out of answers, like Pac-Man backed into a corner by the ghosts (I’ve just learned their names are Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde, which you could have convinced me were all MLS 1.0 mascots). It’s growing harder to believe Porter has a future with this club beyond 2022, if only because it’s growing harder to believe his team will avoid missing the postseason for a second straight year.

But even if the buck stops with Porter, he can’t be the only one to blame for the current quagmire of despair. The goal-scorers don’t score goals. The defenders turn basic possession into disastrous flubs. Goalie Eloy Room has made some costly unforced errors of his own. Former MVP candidate Lucas Zelarayán, who once seemed to be holding this rickety machine together, cooled off significantly as temperatures began to rise. Some players seem inordinately focused on calling out fans for their (understandably) disgruntled tweets. The front office squandered much of the goodwill around the organization last summer with a weird, unnecessary rebrand, leaving many supporters with a bad taste that hasn’t fully gone away almost a year later. Porter has insinuated more than once that Dee and Jimmy Haslam — who just shelled out an unprecedented $230 million (and, some would argue, their souls) for a marquee Cleveland Browns quarterback — have been too cheap to upgrade the Crew roster.

It’s all pretty exhausting and depressing to think about — even more so than the thought of paying hundreds of dollars to bring your family to a soccer game and getting stuck in the bowels of a stadium for four hours instead. So why bother tuning in when the Crew visits Atlanta United this Saturday at 7 p.m. on Bally Sports Ohio? Because teams, including the Columbus Crew, have rallied their way out of far worse circumstances than this. Because the international transfer window may yet yield reinforcements. Because Derrick Etienne Jr. might read this column and score a hat trick to spite me. Because in sports, you never know when the clouds will part and sunshine will come streaming through again.