In form and riding a wave of emotion, is Columbus a team of destiny?
This week, Columbus Crew SC may be choosing between a battle of hearts and minds. And no, that's not a reference to the ongoing story of the Crew's potential relocation, but the choice Gregg Berhalter's team faces in a forthcoming two game series with Toronto FC: Does the team stick with its technical, cerebral brand of game management or go for the kind of blood-and-fury approach that almost worked for the New York Red Bulls at BMO Field?
Off the field, of course, Anthony Precourt's ownership group is doing its best to present the club's future options as a wholly unsentimental matter of "business metrics"; an approach that has put it on repeated clumsy collision courses with the emotional appeals of the #SavetheCrew movement, and indeed with broader public opinion.
Repeated PR gaffes, such as a popular MLS to Austin twitter account apparently tweeting from a Columbus, Ohio location, have somewhat undermined the owners' credentials for seeing the angles nobody else sees, and making tough choices accordingly. Whatever happens next for Columbus, this has been a shabby chapter in the team's tenure in the city.
And in the middle of it all, Crew SC have been on an excellent run that has extended from the summer through to an Eastern Conference final against Toronto.
Opinion has gone back and forth on whether the Austin saga has been a distraction or has pulled team and supporters together during this period; a narrative to drive the team through the playoffs and a potential highly emotional MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium.
In keeping with his cool demeanor, Berhalter has been wary of leaning too much on the emotion of the moment -- and with good reason. The list of playoff losers is littered with the names of teams whose lapses in concentration or discipline cost them dearly. In fact, Berhalter need only point to the team his side beat in the last round, New York City FC, to illustrate that fact.
Despite a valiant rally at Yankee Stadium, NYCFC never recovered from the unnecessary red card to Alexander Callens, or for giving up an injury-time goal in the first leg having crawled its way back to 3-1. Even when NYCFC looked to be playing with momentum at 2-0 up in the second leg and just needing a goal to advance, the coolest person in the stadium was Berhalter, as he added a third central defender to shore up his team and slowly ebb the momentum away from the hosts.
By the time Andrea Pirlo made his strictly sentimental appearance on the field, Crew SC had already eased the game away from feeling anything like an emotional rally.
And now Berhalter faces Toronto: Supporters' Shield winners, possible "Best Ever MLS team" and heavy favorite for every playoff game it plays.
Yet Toronto looks oddly vulnerable after its Pyrrhic victory over the Red Bulls. Two of its three designated players are suspended for the first leg, and Tyler Adams offered a blueprint for dealing with the third, in shutting Michael Bradley out of influence at BMO Field. New York won at notional fortress BMO Field and was a goal away from advancing, after shaking up Toronto by harassing the Reds all over the field.
Berhalter has already said that he doesn't see his Crew SC team engaging in anything like New York's approach. At the very least he doesn't see the virtue in his team trying to reinvent itself as something it's not, so don't expect a chest-thumping battle as Columbus finds its way into the series.
The team may have played its part in one of the more enthralling playoff games in league history against Atlanta, and can certainly punish teams in transition in an open game, but Berhalter knows Crew SC are more likely to triumph against an opponent whose emotions get the better of them than by pinning their own hopes on some heartfelt idea that they are a "team of destiny".
Not that there's not a certain inevitability about Columbus's progress that reminds neutral observers of the progression made by Seattle or Portland in the past two successful MLS Cup campaigns. And watching the emergence of Zack Steffen as a cult figure after his Atlanta performance, you are reminded of moments like the Portland penalty that hit both posts in 2015 or Jordan Morris coming off his flu bed to score for Seattle last year.
But Berhalter will also remember that Toronto looked like a team of destiny too, when it came back from 3-0 down against Montreal in the Eastern Conference final last year, and he will particularly remember his own team scoring in the first ten seconds against the Red Bulls in 2015, and bringing the final to Columbus. Toronto and Columbus lost the last two finals in front of their own fans.
Every year gives us "teams of destiny", but as Columbus fans know only too well right now, sometimes the final destination is not clear.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.