The only audible sound was the shower. After a shocking late-game meltdown against lowly Toronto FC, only the barrage of water on tile offered the slightest disruption to the stunned and solemn silence that permeated the Columbus Crew’s locker room. A barren food table propped up against the wall, long-side up with the legs folder in, hinted that more a perceptible form of discontent had already manifested itself—Albert Belle style—and had since been cleaned up. This was the eerie calm after the storm.
Not even a half hour earlier, the Crew had put the finishing touches on a stunning defeat that rankled on many different levels. Toronto scored in the 87th and 94th minutes to snatch all three points from a Crew team desperately in need of the victory to keep within striking distance of the playoff race. There have been many recent articles using various predictive methodologies, but they have all reached the same conclusion—in order for the Crew to reach the expected playoff threshold, they will likely need to earn points at a rate better than league-leading Real Salt Lake. A tall order for sure, and given the Crew’s top-heavy schedule down the stretch, a win against a bottom feeder like Toronto FC was imperative.
“I’m kind of in disbelief right now,” said Crew defender Josh Williams, whose face matched his softly-spoken words. “I don’t know really what to say.”
Until Saturday, the Crew had never lost at BMO Field (3-0-5) and had lost to the Reds only once in 17 previous meetings overall. The Crew have so heavily dominated the Trillium Cup rivalry that Toronto was the equivalent of the free square on the bingo card. Now throw in that Toronto entered the match on a 336-minute scoreless streak (which would grow to 423 before they tied the score), was missing its two biggest scoring threats (Robert Earnshaw and Danny Koevermans), and had not won a league match at BMO Field since July 18 of last year (going 0-7-9 during that span), and the loss cannot be considered anything less than a psychological catastrophe for the citizens of Crew Nation. Toronto is a team that had blown three stoppage time leads at BMO Field in 2013, and now it was their long-time nemesis, the Crew, of all teams, that reversed the trend and surrendered a stoppage time winner.
Even more worrisome than losing the long-standing air of invincibility when marching into BMO Field is that the loss continues the Crew’s crushing rockslide of distressing defeats. Columbus has lost five of six, seven of nine, and eight of eleven. Not only that, but the losses are the kind that fuel insomnia. The Crew’s last three defeats have all occurred in stoppage time. Even worse, as of the 85th minute of those three losses, the Crew were in position to accrue seven much-needed points in the standings. But a late 1-0 lead turned into a controversial 2-1 loss at Los Angeles, a late scoreless draw turned into a 2-0 stoppage loss at home against New England, and then came Saturday’s debacle, which flipped a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat. Taking it step further, Columbus has had a second half lead in three of its last five losses, and was tied in the second half in the other two. The last time the Crew got soundly beat was a 3-0 thumping in Philadelphia on June 5. Since then, they’ve let 11 second-half points elude their grasp.
Once Toronto tied the score, the result seemed like a foregone conclusion. Moments before the game-winner, the Reds clanged a header off the post. TFC’s momentum meter was pegged. The Crew tried in vain to hold off the inevitable.
“It seems that we always get a lead at some point,” goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum said softly after most the team had cleared out of the locker room. “Then what’s been happening this year seems pretty consistent—we’ve given up late goals allowing other teams to get back in and use that momentum to bury us when we should be closing out games.”
When asked what needed to be done to stop this from happening, Williams was succinct. “Toughen up,” he said. “Play with more heart.”
Gruenebaum added, “I think when (the late losses) are piling up like they are, these are testing times and each person needs to look at themselves, and it starts with me.”
Columbus travels to Houston next Saturday for a game that is the most must-win game of the season to date. The Crew trail the Dynamo by seven points in the race for the final playoff spot, and have played an extra game. A loss would put them ten points back, with Houston still having a game in hand to potentially widen the gap.
Williams’ advice for the coming week was simple: “Practice hard and we better win.”
A few successive victories against Eastern Conference rivals would alter the math and make the playoff path less daunting. The 2012 Crew were eight points back in mid-August, due in large part to frittering away late-stage results earlier in the season. Then they reversed the trend and rattled off a string of dramatic late-game victories that vaulted them temporarily into playoff position, before faltering in the final weeks. Their own recent history has shown that is possible for the Crew to come back from their current deficit, but their troublesome penchant for surrendering points in the second half—and more recently, in stoppage time—has eliminated much of the margin for error.
If there are many more games that end only with the sound of the showers, it will be the season that is circling down the drain.