Nashville SC are back in action after last week’s international break. The Boys In Gold will play their fifth of eight road matches to start the season, traveling north to take on Columbus Crew. For the latest on the Crew, we spoke with Patrick Murphy, who covers Columbus for Massive Report.
Ben Wright: After missing the playoffs last year, the Crew have bounced back early. They’re second in the table and look to be one of the more entertaining sides in the league so far. What’s made the difference? Is this just the Caleb Porter cycle repeating itself?
Patrick Murphy: I don’t believe in the Caleb Porter cycle. While it’s interesting that things have worked out that way for him – one year in the playoffs, the next year out – there are reasons each season things have gone the way they have.
As for this year’s team, there hasn’t been any secret sauce for the team improving other than the group is healthy. Not once in 2020 did Porter have his best 11 available to play together. Injuries to key players such as Artur, Josh Williams, Milton Valenzuela, Lucas Zelarayan and international absences for Gyasi Zardes and others really made it a struggle for the Crew to get anywhere close to the side that won MLS Cup in 2020.
This year, the team has been healthy. Having Artur back alongside Darlington Nagbe in the center of the field makes a huge difference. A true center back partnership between Jonathan Mensah and Milos Degenek has meant consistency at the back. The fast start is also helped by Zelarayan playing as well as he has since joining MLS in 2020.
Basically, this is how the team is built to play when most of its pieces can be on the field.
BW: Lucas Zelarayán won MLS player of the month in March. He’s consistently one of, if not the, best 10 in the league and has been in red-hot form to start the year. What has Porter and the team done to help him hit this type of form?
I’m not sure there’s been much of anything done to help Zelarayán. He just kind of is who he is. He ended last season pretty hot as well when there was some continuity surrounding him.
If you look at Zelarayán’s stats to start the year, three of his four goals have come from outside the penalty box. That’s not anything tactical, it’s just that he is really good at striking a ball (especially free kicks) from that area. Zelarayán knows where to be on the field as well as anyone in the league. He’s just got that knack.
I think what’s been most impressive about him this year is the way he’s getting others involved. Yes, he has two assists in addition to his four goals, but one came after a simple pass followed by a deflected shot and the other was a secondary assist from a free kick. But he’s generating more chances for others and bringing players into the game more than in the past it seems. I don’t know if this is because he’s more comfortable with his teammates or something Porter has asked him to do more, but he’s gone from being essentially a secondary forward playing behind the striker to a true No. 10 who can both score and create at a high level.
BW: A lot has been talked about Gyasi Zardes, with Miguel Berry winning the starting job. What’s your take on the situation, and do you think Zardes has a long-term place in the team, or will he move on?
This “talk” about the Berry-Zardes situation came out of nowhere and appears to be generated by those at the MLS website creating a story to make a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do I believe that the Crew would listen if a significant offer came in for Zardes? Yes, but that’s true about almost any player on the roster. Do I believe they are “open” to trading him, as was reported? No. That is not the case.
Porter said at the beginning of the season that he felt he owed it to Berry to start him to begin the year because of the way he played to end last season. While Berry hasn’t been overly impressive (both he and Zardes have one goal), he plays well off Zelarayan and the team is yet to lose this year with him starting up top.
As for Zardes, he certainly wants to play more than he has, but he too hasn’t been as productive as in the past. He did score in Week 2, but he also missed two or three golden chances when coming off the bench the next two games. Convert a couple of those and it would have made it hard for Porter to not start him.
I will say this, if there’s one Designated Player striker who will handle coming off the bench, for the time being, it’s Zardes. He is a true professional who has done nothing but continue to work with Berry to help him get better.
BW: Nashville and the Crew have always played competitive matches in Columbus, with the Crew coming out on top. How do you think they match up, and what do the Crew need to do to get a win?
I think the Crew needs a healthy Zelarayán to win. He left the game against the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago with a knee injury that wasn’t as bad as it looked at the time but could still keep him out for this game. As mentioned above, Zelarayán has become an even bigger part of this attack with the way he’s creating chances and playing against a good defensive team like Nashville, you need a player to produce some magic.
I expect this to be another tight affair between these two. A scoreless draw honestly wouldn’t surprise me, especially if Zelarayán isn’t able to go. Derrick Etienne Jr. is a player to watch, though, as he has started the season hot as well and teams haven’t seemed to pick up on what he’s doing on the left wing for Columbus. While it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s neutralized by Nashville not pushing numbers forward, one chance in behind the defense or a look inside the box has been all Etienne needs this year.
BW: Do you have a lineup/score prediction?
The lineup is tough to predict without knowing more about Zelarayán ‘s status and guys coming back from international duty (Degenek and Yaw Yeboah specifically). It wouldn’t be entirely shocking if Porter elects to change formation or do something different tactically here, especially if Zelarayán can’t go.
As for the score, I’ll say the Crew continues to win at home but in a close one, 1-0.