As the top seed left in the East, Columbus Crew has a path to MLS Cup with no road games

The Eastern Conference bracket for the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs was thrown into chaos on Tuesday night when the top two seeds, the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC, lost in the first round, giving the Columbus Crew home-field advantage for a conference semifinal on Sunday and, if it advances, the conference final on Dec. 6.

Seventh-seeded Nashville SC, the Crew’s opponent Sunday, upset Toronto FC 1-0 in extra time. By the time that game ended, No. 8 seed New England had a 2-0 lead over Philadelphia, and that ended up being the final. The Revolution will play No. 4 seed Orlando City SC on Sunday.

On paper, the path toward reaching MLS Cup for the third time in club history is less treacherous, but it’s far from a walk in the park.

“Obviously it’s nice to be at home so we’re happy about that. But by no means were we celebrating the opponent in any way, shape or form,” Crew coach Caleb Porter said. “They’re a good team (Nashville), very well-coached, they have experience. Like I said, they’re flying right now.”

The Crew lost just one game at Mapfre Stadium during the regular season (9-1-0) and defeated the New York Red Bulls on Saturday in the first round at home, but failed to win a game on the road (0-5-5). Porter and his team have never wavered in their confidence of reaching MLS Cup, wherever the games were played.

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Columbus Crew SC forward Pedro Santos (7) scores a goal against Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy (20) during the 2nd half of their MLS game at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on September 19, 2020. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]Columbus Crew SC forward Pedro Santos (7) scores a goal against Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy (20) during the 2nd half of their MLS game at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on September 19, 2020. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]
Columbus Crew SC forward Pedro Santos (7) scores a goal against Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy (20) during the 2nd half of their MLS game at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on September 19, 2020. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

As the second-highest seed left in the playoffs, the only scenario in which the Crew would not host MLS Cup if it advances that far would be if the top seed in the West, Sporting Kansas City, was the opponent.

External expectations have risen, but the process has remained the same.

“We’re in the playoffs. There’s no need for added intensity,” Porter said. “The intensity’s there, the motivation’s there. You’re seeing every team’s best right now.”

While Toronto appeared to be the more difficult opponent, Porter said he expected Nashville to win because he believed the expansion club was in better form and the more dangerous opponent the Crew could face in the conference semifinals.

The Crew’s lone matchup against the first-year MLS club was a 2-0 win on Sept. 19 at Mapfre Stadium. Since then, including playoff wins against Inter Miami in the play-in round and against Toronto, Nashville has been arguably the hottest team in the East at 7-2-5.

Led by MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, coach Gary Smith’s team has been stingy on defense — allowing more than one goal twice in the past 14 games — and has an attack that has peaked at the right time.

“I don’t look at it like we ever get favors in the playoffs,” Porter said. “Every team’s good and there’s no easy road, ever. You start to think that way when you play a different seed or a lower seed, that’s the wrong mindset.”

Crew captain Jonathan Mensah said the mood in the locker room and at training on Wednesday was the same as before the results the night before. Having not had a clean sheet since its meeting with Nashville, the Crew wasn’t bothered by who the next opponent would be.

“They’ve done well for their inaugural season, but we are more focused on us,” Mensah said.

Follow The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jacob Myers on Twitter @_jcmyers.

Crew vs. Nashville SC

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WBNS-FM (97.1)

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: MLS Cup playoffs: Columbus Crew is now the team to beat in the East

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