It is once again matchday-minus-one – something we’re almost taking for granted at this point, after five months without – and that means a closer look at the opponent. I caught up with Thomas Costello of Massive Report for a local look at Columbus Crew SC.
For Club and Country: The Crew lost a creator in Federico Higuaín and replaced him with a very different type of player in Darlington Nagbe. That… seems to have gone well! What are the differences in how the team is playing, and has Nagbe fit into that No. 10 role?
Thomas Costello: “Darlington Nagbe can do it all. He has experience playing the 10, but he’s been the spotlight of the defensive midfield this season. It sounds cliché, but he is a box-to-box midfielder. He makes smart passes and doesn’t lose the ball. Coach Caleb Porter used him in the 10-role once this season, two weeks ago when they won 3-0 against FC Cincinnati, and it felt like he didn’t miss a step. Columbus, and the league, are lucky to have him around. He draws so much attention away from those around him, and is able to distribute at almost 100% completion. That recipe has opened up an offense that struggled to find its form last year, after injuries left Columbus without Frederico Higuain.
“Lucas Zelarayan came in, from Liga MX, and took over where Pipa [Higuaín] left off, and then some. It’s early in his tenure with Columbus, but he’s scored four goals and assisted on one already. One of them was a beautiful free kick in the first match of MLS is Back, against FC Cincinnati. Higuaín leaving left a big hole in the midfield, and in the hearts of some supporters, but between Zelarayan and Nagbe, people have been quick to move on.”
FCAC: Nagbe missed Saturday’s draw against Chicago Fire. Was that just load management, or is there any worry that he could be unavailable this weekend? How did Caleb Porter adjust for his absence?
TC: “Darlington Nagbe – and Lucas Zelarayan, since we’re discussing injuries – were out with what Caleb Porter called ‘minor knee knocks’ and would not be out long. Both injuries were the result of tackles in-play, and they didn’t leave the field because of the tackles. The Crew went into Chicago with a five-point lead in the East, and Nagbe had started every regular season match. With all those things in mind, it’s not a stretch of logic to think that he was giving him a day off, especially with MLS teams traveling the day of matches.
“In response, new Crew midfielder Fatai Alashe (who moved over from FC Cincinnati at the beginning of Phase 1) started his second straight match in the midfield. Pedro Santos, a natural winger, slotted into the 10-role with both Zelarayan and Nagbe not traveling with the club. This move from Porter is what he did last year when Higuaín left with a season-ending injury. Pedro Santos had a great match, but you could tell that the midfield took some time to get used to one another. It was a lineup that hadn’t started together all season, which is similar to most matches this season because of a rotating door of minor knocks, but without Nagbe in the middle it took time to adjust. Chicago ran fast, early, and got behind the usually-tough Columbus defense.
“They went into halftime down 2-0, to a lower-half of the table Chicago team. 2019 Columbus Crew SC would have lost that match, but they found their stride and left the Windy City with a point. Some draws feel like a loss, but this one felt like a win for the mentality of the club.”
FCAC: This has been one of the league’s best defenses (adjusted for competition, certainly the best). How have the Crew’s defenders been so effective? Or is it largely about the keeper?
TC: “Columbus’s defense was strong last year, giving up the fourth fewest goals in the East, and that was with a beaten-up backline, with both fullbacks out for a majority of the year, the defensive focal point Jonathan Mensah, and not seeing the same pairing at center back for more than a match or two at a time.
“This year, they’ve stayed healthy, and it’s a huge boost for the team. The offense can work knowing that Ghana International and team captain Jonathan Mensah and MLS veteran Josh Williams understand one another and cover a lot of ground. Outside of Mensah and Williams, Columbus has a young US Youth International Aboubacar Keita, who has gotten some minutes but still needs time before he’s an every-match starter. He plays with a fire, and is a magnet for disciplinary action by the referees.
“It also doesn’t hurt having Eloy Room behind them, either. After Zack Steffen left for Manchester City, the Crew relied on MLS veterans to guard between the posts because there wasn’t an established No. 2 behind Steffen. After his breakout performance for Curaçao in the 2019 Gold Cup, Room signed with Columbus as a free agent. He’s got fast reflexes and can cover a lot of space. On free kicks, he’s come up big. Room hasn’t lost a match all of 2020. He was injured in the second-to-last MLS is Back group stage match against New York Red Bulls, and came back after Columbus’ only loss, to NYCFC during Phase 1.
“Overall, their defense has a strong, established, veteran group but in any given match, you’ll see anyone making stops in the defensive half, with Pedro Santos, Nagbe and fullback Milton Valenzuela all making key stops in their 1-0 win over Philadelphia Union. One of those stops coming right on the line, as the ball got past Room. The team knows that the game is won with both offense and defense, and everyone plays their part.”
FCAC: Who are some of the unsung players who have helped the Crew machine maintain a well-oiled one in 2020?
TC: “It’s hard to call him unsung, but Gyasi Zardes has been so key this year. He’s also back in the United States Men National Team and has a history of winning with LA Galaxy, but 2019 was tough for him. Last season, he had only 13 goals in 28 matches, compared to 19 in his MLS Comeback Player of the Year campaign of 2018. There wasn’t much consistency last year up front, and Zardes didn’t see the opportunities that he’s seeing this year. Defenses could put more men on him, because there weren’t many other threats. What’s most important about those opportunities is finishing them. In 2019, his opportunities were rarer, and he wasn’t scoring the goals expected. This season, he’s putting the ball into the net because he’s getting more space, and more chances. A good striker finishes and this year he’s been great. In 11 matches, he’s scored 8, and the goals have been big.
“The starting offensive wingers haven’t been consistent all year. At the end of last season, it was a competition between Luis Díaz and Youness Mokhtar – a competition that stretched into this season. Columbus brought in Derrick Etienne, Jr. for depth, and all three have played close to equal time in the role. Mokhtar had a strong MLS is Back, until an injury sidelined him for a few weeks. He’s able to score goals from outside the box, and is strong in possession. Luis Díaz brings a whole different flavor, with speed and being able to stretch the field with it. Etienne is like a mixture of the skills of both Díaz and Moktar. I consider them unsung heroes because they make it difficult for defenses to plan when you don’t know which combination you’re going to get. When they get time, they make the best of it too, with three goals and four assists between the three of them in the 11 regular-season contests played.”
FCAC: Do you have any specific predictions for that game (including a final score if you’re comfortable with that)?
TC: “Caleb Porter really doesn’t enjoy losing, and a draw against a team that they should have beaten should take away any of the warm feelings of having a big lead at the top of the Supporters’ Shield race. I predict that Columbus will win 2-1, if Darlington Nagbe doesn’t start. If he starts, 2-0.”
Darlington Nagbe photo by Devin L’Amoreuax and Jared Martinez/Courtesy Major League Soccer.