If you are looking for an example of home-field advantage, look no further than Columbus Crew SC's play at MAPFRE Stadium, starting with the 2020 regular season.
A plus-14 goal differential; 27 of a possible 30 points earned in a truncated schedule; only 35 total shots on target allowed all regular season; and, most notably, a five-match home shutout streak to open the season, which meant the Crew would not witness an opponent score in Columbus until September.
The list of notables goes on, as the Crew’s defensive prowess and balanced style of play laid the foundation for attaining the second-highest points-per-game average in Club history (1.78).
Award-worthy, season-long performances from the likes of, though not limited to, MLS Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan, MLS Best XI defender Jonathan Mensah, and MLS Golden Boot contender Gyasi Zardes, who bagged seven of his 12 regular-season goals in 2020 at MAPFRE Stadium, helped lay the tracks that have led the Crew to its second-ever MLS Cup appearance in Columbus, only a year after the announcement of a new ownership group and a new coaching staff.
As reliant as the Crew has been on those aforementioned individuals, there is no denying the Crew’s successful home run this regular-season (and its continuance into the playoffs) is built on a foundation of team-centric defensive play, perhaps best defined by the Club’s six total goals conceded – a function of not one goalkeeper or defender, or even backline, but from the No. 9 in Zardes all the way back to Eloy Room and Andrew Tarbell between the pipes.
Of the 10 matches Columbus hosted during the regular season, the Crew shutout its opponent in five of them, and in four of those five shutouts by Columbus, the Black & Gold scored at least two goals themselves.
The Club's nine home victories tied for the League-high and included six total wins against playoff-qualifying teams. Meanwhile, the team's sole blemish, a 2-1 home loss to Montreal on Oct. 7, did not feature Zelarayan.
Following that loss to Montreal on Oct. 7, the Crew ended the regular season with three straight home wins for a 9-1-0 home record, and there has been no sign of slowing down since the start of the postseason.
The Black & Gold have extended their home win streak to six games and improved the team's overall 2020 home record to 12-1-0, all while currently holding a 210-minute postseason shutout streak, the longest such home playoff streak in Club history, while marking only the second time in which the Club has posted back-to-back postseason shutouts.
Of course, none of this home success should come as a surprise.
Though the structure itself of MAPFRE Stadium, the first modern soccer-specific stadium in North America, does not rival the Estadio Aztecas of the continent, the lore of MAPFRE Stadium's innate home-field advantage simply cannot be denied, whether it be in the Crew’s regular-season history, as proven by three Supporters’ Shield trophies, or the Club’s post-season performances with what is now the second MLS Cup hosting opportunity in the past six seasons.
We can look to the Crew’s U.S. Open Cup run in 2002 that culminated in a final victory at MAPFRE Stadium, and, of course, we can turn to the international stage with the noted success of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams here in Central Ohio.
Certainly, some semblance of good fortune came into play with both the Eastern and Western Conference’s top seeds falling early in the playoffs, and in doing so helping pave the way for a No. 3 seed Crew to host MLS Cup once again.
But even then, those happenings have no actual bearing on the Crew’s play at MAPFRE Stadium in 2020 and the Club’s near-perfect report card.
Now, all that is left is a chance to extend that unbeaten streak and one final opportunity to hoist a trophy in a stadium that, just like for many supporters, holds a special significance for Crew players alike.
With that, there is no better example than defender Josh Williams, who attended Crew games as a kid while growing up a couple of hours north of Columbus.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Williams said. “Growing up as a fan, realizing the dream, that transition from a fan to a player, and then starting here as just a 30th man on the roster to now having a significant role.”
Given the offseason acquisition of defender and Opening Match starters Vito Wormgoor, who went on to suffer a season-ending injury in the Crew’s third match of the season, Williams spoke about how his attitude going into this season made all the difference.
Now, with 14 starts logged in 2020, including three straight postseason starts – his highest total since making five starts in 2017 – Williams heads into this final MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium with a unique perspective as a veteran, Ohio-born player.
“There’s so much that goes into this for me, personally. I think about Kirk Urso when I think about this, the Hunt Family, Doc Edwards, everyone. There are so many people that I want to shout out went I think about my memories and what links me to the stadium. To have the ability next week to send out this stadium with something as special as hosting an MLS Cup and possibly winning an MLS Cup, that would be icing on the cake.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET on FOX and UniMás, and can be streamed on the FOX Sports App. Live radio coverage will be broadcast in English on 97.1 FM The Fan and in Spanish on www.ColumbusCrewSC.com/LiveAudio.