Nashville SC travel north tomorrow to take on Columbus Crew SC. The reigning MLS Cup champions defeated the Boys In Gold in two matches last season, including a win in extra time of the Eastern Conference semifinals. To get more information on the Crew, we turned to Patrick Murphy, who covers the Crew for Massive Report.
Ben Wright: After their MLS Cup win last year, Columbus started 2021 pretty slowly. What was going on? Was there some CCL hangover involved, and how have they got past it?
Patrick Murphy: It was a combination of things to start the year. As you mentioned, the Champions League is never easy to balance with MLS play and most teams involved either crash out early or see their MLS form struggle. The Crew actually, at one point, had the best form of the MLS teams still in the competition.
In terms of the start of the MLS season, the priority with lineups was largely on the Champions League games against Monterrey. The team also dealt with injuries coming into the year (Kevin Molino took multiple months to make his debut, Aidan Morris tore his ACL in the second Champions League game, Gyasi Zardes, Artur, Darlington Nagbe all dealt with nagging issues). This, on top of a fairly congested MLS schedule, did not make things easy on the Black & Gold in terms of getting out to a fast start to 2021.
BW: The Crew just came back from two goal deficits against New England and Cincinnati, and then got a really solid win at NYCFC. What’s gone right for them in recent weeks?
PM: The team is starting to find some form despite missing a number of pieces, be it due to injury or international duty. Guys who were depth pieces have seen regular minutes of late, and that has helped develop a chemistry between this group.
The two two-goal comebacks were both rather strange games in that the Crew didn’t play poorly to go down 2-0, but rather had two mistakes in each game. The New England game in particular, the Revolution really had very little offense but a couple of poor decisions at the back led to two goals. We’re probably talking about this team differently if they handle some of those early moments better in those two games and get wins instead of draws.
As for the New York City game, it was really the first time in about a month that Columbus played a normal soccer game without a ton of extra hype around it. The team closed historic Crew Stadium, went to Austin to face the team run by the Black & Gold’s former owner, came back for the home opener at Lower.com Field and then went to FC Cincinnati for the first Hell is Real Derby at TQL Stadium. It was quite the month.
In that game against City, the team was much more about the soccer on the field and it showed. It wasn’t the best performance, the Crew was down 12 players for the match, but there wasn’t that added pressure of some of the previous games and I think that group was able to just play and get the win, if that makes sense.
BW: Nashville and Columbus both have in-form no. 10s in Hany Mukhtar and Lucas Zelarayán. Can you talk a bit about Zelarayán and how important he’s been to Columbus? How can Nashville stop him on Wednesday?
PM: It’s hard to explain how important Zelarayan has been for the Crew so far in his second season with the club. Last year, he came in and replaced Federico Higuain better than anyone expected. When he was healthy, he was the best player on the field on most nights. He then obviously won the MLS Cup MVP award, putting the offense on his back against the Seattle Sounders.
This year, the offense started a little slowly, and it was Zelarayan who was shouldering much of the load early on until Gyasi Zardes and others started firing. Teams made an attempt at doubling him, but he found ways to pop up in other areas of the pitch and still be dangerous. He’s already set the club’s record for direct free kicks scored in a season and is going after the MLS mark. He played as a False 9 against FC Cincinnati when Caleb Porter didn’t really have any other options.
Frankly, Zelarayan, like Mukhtar, has come in and quickly proven to be one of the best players in MLS. He fits into how the Crew want to play so well and quickly got on the same page with his teammates.
As for how to stop him, that’s a good question. There have been games this year where he hasn’t been as impactful, but he’s always been able to leave his mark on the game, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. I would say Nashville needs to avoid fouls around the penalty area, as he has proven to be deadly on dead balls. Other than that, it’s just about limiting his touches in dangerous areas.
BW: Despite their own issues this year, Nashville have been one of the better attacking teams in the league. What are you expecting from the Crew defense tomorrow?
PM: The last two years, the Crew’s defense has been more or less the same: steady. In 2020, the team finished with the third-best defensive record and this year has allowed the second-fewest goals in MLS. Porter preaches team defense, starting from the front and the players bought in. It doesn’t hurt having Jonathan Mensah, a Defender of the Year finalist last season, and Eloy Room at the back as well.
As for this game, I expect more of the same. Nashville certainly presents some dangerous attacking options and will be a challenge for this group, especially if Josh Williams remains out (he’s listed as questionable for this match). Something the Black & Gold have done well is not allow the opponent’s best attackers to get into dangerous spots, and that will be key in this game.
BW: Who are some players Nashville fans should watch out for?
PM: On the attacking side of things, Alexandru Matan has played well of late. The young winger, who was signed in the offseason, has had to play a lot of minutes recently with other players out and is starting to find his form. He’s good on the ball and isn’t afraid to try a shot and make a pass. It hasn’t come off for Matan yet, but you can see his improvements game by game.
Another would be Marlon Hairston. While he’s been in the league now eight years, Hariston hasn’t always been the most consistent. He was brought to Columbus as an experimental backup right back, but has seen nearly all of his minutes in central midfield with Artur out. This appears to be the spot he will play going forward, as he adds some of the similar rangey play that Artur brings alongside Nagbe, and now is starting to get on the ball more and help create.
BW: What does Columbus need to do to win this one, and what are some weaknesses of theirs that Nashville could exploit?
A: I imagine the game plan will be similar to Saturday against NYCFC. While the Crew didn’t play its usual dominant possession style because of the available players, the plan was more about sitting a bit deeper, keeping the ball when possible and picking times to go forward.
The Black & Gold are well aware of Nashville’s attacking ability and will want to avoid conceding early (the team has only lost once in the last two years when scoring first). This will be key.
I imagine we’ll see more of Bradley Wright-Phillips (who just came back from an injury) in this one, giving Columbus a true striker for the match and Molino and Derrick Etienne could feature off the bench after returning from the Gold Cup, which could provide some attacking flair.
BW: Do you have a lineup/score prediction?
PM: I’ll say 2-1 Crew, just because the Black & Gold are at home and the energy has been really good at Lower.com Field so far in the first two games. These midweek games are especially tough to predict though, so we’ll see.
As for a lineup, I imagine Porter goes with as strong a group as he can at home before traveling to Atlanta this weekend. I’ll guess:
Harrison Afful-Jonathan Mensah-Aboubacar Keita-Waylon Francis
Marlon Hairston-Darlington Nagbe
Alexandru Matan-Lucas Zelarayan-Pedro Santos
Thanks to Patrick for his time and knowledge. Make sure to follow him on Twitter for the latest on Columbus Crew @_Pat_Murphy.