Two teams on opposite ends of the Eastern Conference standings face off again on Monday, Aug. 24, as top-of-the-table Columbus Crew (5-0-1, 16 pts.) takes on bottom-dwelling New York City FC (1-5-0, 3 pts.) in what will be the Crew's first road match since March 7 [7:00 p.m. ET / FOX Sports Ohio, FOX Sports GO (Stream) / 97.1 The Fan & 971TheFan.com (English), ColumbusCrewSC.com (Spanish)].
NYCFC has lost five of its first six League games, with four of those defeats coming via a 1-0 scoreline. That includes the latest chapter of the Hudson River Derby, although the goal they conceded was hotly contested.
Conversely, Crew SC picked up where they left off in Orlando with a convincing 3-0 victory over Chicago Fire FC in their regular-season restart. One of three undefeated teams remaining this season, Caleb Porter's squad has a goal differential of +11 and have conceded just once.
NYCFC has enjoyed a distinct home-field advantage through the years, but the club was forced to move its home games in Phase 1 from Yankee Stadium to Red Bull Arena due to the New York Yankees' congested schedule in MLB's restart.
There's arguably not a better, more complete team in Major League Soccer through six weeks than Columbus Crew SC. Porter has rotated his lineup, he's dealt with injuries and yet, to this point, there's no stopping this train.
Pure class at the MLS is Back Tournament, Crew SC showed no rust in their restart with a comprehensive 3-0 win over the Chicago Fire. Darlington Nagbe, known for his defensive work in the middle of the park, scored what could be the Goal of the Year in the win, a thunderous volley from long range.
"I think these kinds of games actually show a different side of our character," center back Jonathan Mensah said. "We have a strong team, and we always find a way to win. We’re creating a culture that we do whatever we can to win games."
The Crew have only given up two points from a winning position this season and that came on March 7 at the defending MLS Cup champion, Seattle Sounders FC, after a penalty kick – which was originally denied by Eloy Room – was called back and then converted on.
As Porter noted after training on Saturday, the Crew's stout defensive showcase is more so a function of the team executing its style of play effectively than any particular standout individual work.
"We were talking about it today as a staff how we have five shutouts in six games and we've only given up a penalty kick," Porter said. "It'd be easy to say 'oh, the backline is rock solid or the goalkeeper,' but the reality is opponents are not getting a lot of chances."
This season, Columbus has only faced seven shots on target from within the box and 18 shots on target overall (both totals are tied for third in MLS^). To boot, the Black & Gold have one of the League's best passing efficiency ratings in the opponent's half at 79.4 percent.
"I think our style of playing and way that we are executing means we are keeping the ball more and we are not defending as much," continued Porter. "When we are pressing high, it means the opponent is further away from our goal. If we are doing it right, it actually the back four isn't defending our box, they are actually a high line and squeezing, sealing."
New York City FC, meanwhile, has totaled a respectable 62 scoring chances (t-5th in MLS) and 24 shots on target – just one less than the Crew's 25 – but have failed in the finishing category as the Cityzens have scored just twice for a League-low 3.64 conversion rate.
Still, the possession and chance-creation stats sit in NYCFC's favor, which is why Porter is not taking Monday's match-up lightly.
"You look at last year, they won the East, and they won the East because they have a really explosive, attacking group and that has not changed – those pieces are still there. So they are as talented as any team in the league when you look at their individual personnel. So that doesn't scare us, but that makes us very mindful of their capability which will keep us grounded and locked in, and not looking at, again, their record because they have some guys that can hurt you."
A key figure in last year's success for New York was Maxi Moralez, who led MLS with 20 regular-season assists in 2019 to go along with seven goals. Moralez was listed as questionable (calf issue) ahead of his team's 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls on Aug. 20 and did not feature in the match.
Regardless, Porter said he isn't focused on extraneous circumstances, and rather is fixated on improving day-over-day.
"Right now it's about progressing as a team and being the best version of ourselves, individually and collectively. And the reason I say that is because I know that that's going to be the most important thing at the end of the year in allowing us to accomplish our goal. You want to get results, but to keep getting results you have to keep improving."
Come Monday, it's not the best team that wins, Porter said, but "the team that plays best."