Preparations are well underway for defending MLS Cup Champions Columbus Crew, who are currently in Orlando drawing the picture for the 2021 season.
They will be busier than most, too.
The last week has been a big one in terms of the team’s planning. The MLS regular season schedule was released, along with the news that the Crew will be taking part in the 2021 Campeones Cup.
The season will be headlined by the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League effort, which is coming up quickly. The Crew open the tournament traveling to take on Nicaraguan heavyweight Real Estelí FC in early April.
It is a huge test to open the campaign considering their opponents are not only in full swing, but thriving. Only one point away from the lead in the Primera División, Real Estelí is on the cusp of its fourth straight league title.
The rollout of the MLS schedule did not change the fact that head coach Caleb Porter is keeping it simple in terms of planning, and views the first three games as the handful they will be in terms of attention.
“Being able to manage those first three games, which are all in a week, it’s going to be grueling,” said Porter. “Obviously we’re going to travel to Nicaragua, play a game, come back home, play another game that week and then turn around and play our first league game against Philly. So, I would say we’re pretty much focused on that right now. Not looking much past that,”
Columbus heads to Real Estelí on April 8 to open up the CCL campaign, hosts the reverse fixture on April 15, and welcomes defending Eastern Conference Champion Philadelphia Union on April 18.
Striker Gyasi Zardes has been in this situation before. Back in his LA Galaxy days, he appeared in nine CCL games. He understands what it means to balance a sizeable workload.
“It’s extremely, extremely difficult, but at the same time if you’re obedient and manage your body, and manage what you do off the field that can help you stay healthy,” he said. “There’s going to be games, Wednesday, Saturday, you know, Tuesday, and it’s going to be extremely important that we start off on the on the right foot and specifically (for) me it’s gonna be important I stay healthy and really be honest and communicate with the staff if I feel something.
“I have to make sure the communication is crystal clear, because it’s a lot of crucial games jam-packed within the first few months of our season.”
In terms of travel, the 2021 MLS schedule will keep teams closer to home than usual. A trip to face Austin FC in June is the Crew’s only Western Conference road match.
No doubt, the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown will still linger. In a holistic sense, midfielder Darlington Nagbe sees a little upside to the league’s conference-heavy scheduling.
“It’s definitely different, but we did it last year. So maybe we’re getting a little bit more used to it…” Nagbe said. “I think it’s good, kind of with everything going on in the world, kind of staying close in your region to get in those games and knocking those games out as opposed to opening up and traveling, taking a little bit more risk.
“But hopefully, as things open up and COVID calms down, and getting back a little more normalcy…we can get back to the normal schedule of traveling out there and playing those guys (Western Conference team) and getting that going.”
Porter also pointed out that the schedule will emphasize in-conference success.
“It’s a different type of schedule, for sure, gonna be mostly the conference, so the best teams in the conference are going to shake out more than ever.”
With three, possibly four trophies on the table, adjusting back to “normal” with the full slate of international breaks, the team’s offseason headliner reinforcements of Kevin Molino, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Perry Kitchen were warranted. But it is still possible that the team could run out of gas by the end of the demanding season.