A week after their first multi-goal win, Nashville SC travel north to take on conference-leading Columbus Crew SC. To get the latest on the Crew, we caught up with Thomas Costello, who covers Columbus for Massive Report. Make sure to follow them for the most comprehensive coverage of the Crew here.
Ben Wright: The Crew seemed to be a popular preseason pick as maybe a dark horse candidate this year, but I don’t think many people thought they’d be this dominant. Why do you think this Crew side has really been the elite team in the East so far this season?
Thomas Costello: 2019 was not a great year for Columbus. Injuries led to Milton Valenzuela, Harrison Afful and Frederico Higuain (the club’s starting defensive backs and the maestro of the offense) missing most of the season. Starting center backs Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams both missed chunks of time. The team went through a change in manager with Gregg Berhalter’s transition to the US National Team leading to the hiring of Caleb Porter, who came off a break from coaching. Even his hiring was delayed until the beginning of 2019, due to the sale of Columbus Crew SC to the Haslam and Edwards families. This led to an influx of new players too, with Zack Steffan’s move to Europe leading to a hole in the goalkeeper situation, eventually filled by Eloy Room after his breakout performance in the Gold Cup.
Those are all excuses, of course, but with all that said, they still had the fourth fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Their problem came in the offensive category, scoring only more goals than then-expansion side FC Cincinnati and the bottom team in the west: Vancouver Whitecaps.
This year is so different because the defense has stayed relatively healthy and they added two game-changers in Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe brings a calm to the midfield, completing almost 100% of his passes. Zelarayan moved into the role vacated by Higuain’s move to DC United, and has flourished offensively. Not only with his four goals, but it allows Pedro Santos to play in his more natural winger position. Gyasi Zardes now has consistent passes coming his way, and less defensive pressure on him compared to last year when it was him, Santos and a mixed bag of offensive players around them. He’s scored 8 goals in 11 matches, compared to 13 in 28 the year prior.
Overall, they’re a group of strong veteran players, who play to each other’s strengths, and fit well into Caleb Porter’s system.
BW: Nashville SC pride themselves on being a strong defensive team, and yet the Crew have conceded a league-low four goals so far. How have they been so dominant in the back, and do you think the two goals they gave up against Chicago expose any holes, or were they just unlucky?
TC: There’s of course an element of luck to sports, but Columbus has done well to make their own luck, defensively. Like I mentioned before, they had a strong defense last year, even with heavily rotated lineups. Columbus brought in Vito Wormgoor to start opposite club captain Jonathan Mensah, but he suffered a surgery-requiring ankle injury in the first match of MLS is Back. Josh Williams has moved into the starting role, with US youth player Aboubacar Keita getting minutes. They make their luck by getting back defensively. Columbus is not a team that will stack the box, and park the bus, defensively but they get back quickly. Against Philadelphia, a couple matches ago, Milton Valenzuela, Pedro Santos and Darlington Nagbe made key stops, a couple right on the line, because they know when they need to switch from offense to defense. Then Chicago happened.
Saturday’s first half started run-and-gun. There was little possession by either side, and Chicago was quicker on offense than Columbus was at getting back on defense. They doubled Columbus’ two goals given up in seven matches in 15 minutes.
Darlington Nagbe missed the match due to injury, which was a big loss. Without him playing in the midfield, it took the Black & Gold time to adjust. The five midfielders played their first match together, and Chicago exploited it. What was different from that match to last year was that 2019 Columbus would have lost. In the second half, the 2020 Columbus showed back up and were able to grab a draw in the 88th minute. Caleb Porter does not like to lose, and the club doesn’t quit.
BW: Darlington Nagbe is probably the more recognizable name on the Crew’s roster, but who are some other players Nashville fans should keep an eye on this weekend?
TC: Here are five players you should watch for this weekend. First and second, Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful. They’re defensive backs who you will see a lot throughout the match, because they play the entire length of the field. They’ll be big pieces of the offensive, and get forward a lot. Jonathan Mensah is the starting center back and team captain. The defense goes through him. He’ll cover a good amount of space, and go in for hard tackles. He’s not a reckless defender, but he makes it difficult for offenses, and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about how great their defense is and not discuss Eloy Room. Room has only been with the club, and in the league, for a year but has had a big impact. He’ll make a big save or two a match. Finally, Luis Diaz. The Costa Rican international may not start the match, but he’ll find his way onto the field. Diaz is an offensive winger that will attack the defense with pace. While he hasn’t scored any goals this season, it isn’t for lack of trying. He’s a gunslinger that will rattle off shots. Luis Diaz is more dangerous to Nashville if he comes on as a substitute, because of his tremendous pace. He’s the quickest on the club, and up there with the fastest in the league. He came on to start the second half, against FC Cincinnati, two weeks ago. It was a 0-0 draw after halftime, but because of his pace and control, he rushed his defender, who tried to foul him but couldn’t keep up, and passed perfectly into the box to set up the first goal of the match. That opened up the stubborn Cincinnati defense, leading to a 3-0 victory.
BW: Do you have a guess as to how the Crew will lineup this weekend? Have a prediction for the scoreline?
TC: Guessing the lineup is something that we do each week at Massive Report, and it hasn’t been something we’re good at this season. Columbus’ has had different personnel in for all of their matches, due to various injuries. Gyasi Zardes, Pedro Santos, Artur, Eloy Room and the defensive back four will likely start, especially with a week off and no travel. Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan missed the Chicago match because of, what coach Caleb Porter called, “minor knee knocks.” If one, or both, of them start, it will make things difficult for Nashville.
My prediction is a 2-1 victory for the Columbus Crew, because I’m not sure if Nagbe will be healthy enough to get the start. 2-0 if he does start.