When the news broke on Thursday night that the Columbus Crew would once again find themselves short-handed in the postseason, and now on the highest stage, hearts sank within the team.
During the team’s training session, head coach Caleb Porter was notified of a second positive COVID-19 test in the week, which factored both star midfielder Darlington Nagbe, and the versatile winger Pedro Santos out of the equation for Saturday’s MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders.
“It was a tough couple seconds, and it was even tougher when I obviously had the chance to go home and just kind of wrap my head around it,” Porter told media on Friday.
Nagbe has been good for a 95% successful passing rate in 2020, and Santos has registered eight goals and eight assists in all competitions this season, including two in the playoffs.
Having been down six men already at one point in the playoffs, the thought of missing players for the final was always a prepared-for possibility, and Porter is not making any changes to the game plan on short notice.
“We have a game model so our system, in our way of playing, overall shouldn’t change with one or two guys out,” said Porter. “Otherwise it’s probably not a very good game model. We do rely on the talent of our players to execute, but also we prepare one to three guys to play in a role in our system and they’re very well prepared on a daily basis to step in,”
It will be the opportunity of a lifetime for the two filling in.
On the wing, it is likely that Youness Mokhtar or Derrick Etienne Jr will be stepping in. As for the vacancy left by Nagbe’s absence, Aidan Morris, Fatai Alashe or Sebastian Berhalter could get the call.
In Friday’s conversation, Porter referenced his 2015 MLS Cup victory with the Portland Timbers, and how the situation at hand is not only similar, but manageable.
“I told them before the tournament started a story a little bit of my time in Portland and how we made it through the MLS Cup playoffs and won a trophy. I told them a story of a bunch of the players that left the lineup in strange ways,
“We wouldn’t have won that trophy if wasn’t great depth and guys being ready,”
The team still boasts plenty of attacking firepower with Gyasi Zardes having a career year, newcomer Lucas Zelarayán’s gaudy numbers as a playmaker, and regular starter Luis Diaz holding down his usual spot on the wing.
Down two impact players, Porter will not be offering any excuses, regardless of who hoists the trophy on Saturday.
“You never know what you’re going to get. Certainly this year. At times, it’s been a war of attrition for everyone and we’re kind of conditioned to that. Otherwise, like some teams, we would have crumbled,”
“My job is, no matter what happens, is to find a way to win,”