After a rough start to the MLS season, the Crew have turned things around in a big way since the start of May. Unbeaten in their last 4 matches, the Crew have lost only two matches in the last 2 months (against MLS Cup hopefuls LAFC and NYCFC.) Considering their start, Caleb Porter has his side in a good position, sitting 3 points off of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand.
The Crew’s recent lineups have featured seasoned MLS veterans Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, and Pedro Santos in defense, former USMNT player Darlington Nagbe in midfield, and superstar Argentine attacker Lucas Zelarayan either as a forward or attacking midfielder. Before an injury that caused Zelarayan to miss 4 games during the month of June, he was among the MLS’ best in chance creation and attacking creativity. After the first 8 games of the season, Zelarayan ranked 2nd in chances created (tied with Carles Gil and behind only Luciano Acosta,) 3rd in big chances created, and 2nd in chances created from open play. Needless to say, the Crew feel comfortable with the ball at Zelarayan’s feet. Containing him will be a taller task than usual for Jim Curtin with usual Union defensive midfielder Jose Martinez suspended with a red card.
Luckily, the Union will not have to face Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez, who scored 5 goals in the Premier League last season for Watford and reportedly signed a Designated Player contract with the Crew last week.
During their resurgence, The Crew have taken advantage of smart front office decisions and a coach willing to trust young players. This was exhibited to a tee in Columbus’ 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Wednesday. The story of the day was 19-year-old Canadian forward Jacen Russell-Rowe, who notched two assists in the first 30 minutes of his first MLS start. Russell-Rowe more than fit the part on the pitch, looking extremely dangerous in and around the box, dribbling through tight spaces, and in hold-up play as he looked to facilitate for his teammates. Russell-Rowe grew up in the Toronto FC academy, where things didn’t quite work out as the organization preferred several other no. 9s above him. After 2 years of college soccer at University of Maryland, Columbus signed Russell-Rowe to their MLS Next Pro team with the hope that he might prove himself to be first-team ready. He did just that. This isn’t the first youngster the Columbus organization has recently given a second chance to, either. Will Sands, twin brother of USMNT midfielder James Sands and formerly of the NYCFC academy, has become a crucial part of their matchday squad in recent weeks. Coach Caleb Porter has also become comfortable rolling out homegrowns Sean Zawadzski and Aidan Morris in midfield. Perhaps the Crew have taken a page out of the Union’s book in how to develop young players.
How can the Union get back on track?
The Union will arrive at yet another match on short rest and with a depleted bench due to the ongoing CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Honduras. Still, however rotated, the Union will take the field with a better XI on paper. Wednesday’s match against Chicago showed that this doesn’t exactly matter when the players on the field don’t do what’s necessary to win. The Union’s high pressure, high intensity identity completely vanished from minute 1 of the match. As they did in the second half of last Sunday’s match against NYCFC, the Union came out slow and sluggish, allowing Chicago to dominate possession and most of the chances throughout the match. Another performance like this against a hungry group of Columbus players looking to return to the playoffs will yield the same result. If the Union are able to return to the high-pressing, turnover-forcing, counter-attacking side they were in the first of the NYCFC match, they should be able to handle a weaker Columbus side without issue.
Whether fitness levels will allow the players to do so is another question entirely. While I would suggest some squad rotation to manage this, there isn’t much rotation I can suggest with the squad Jim Curtin is currently working with. With Jose Martinez’ absence forcing a change in defensive midfield, I expect the manager to have Jack Elliot occupy that role (which he has done on one other occasion this season) and for Scotland international Stuart Findlay to step into central defense. Findlay started last year’s Eastern Conference final at center back, and Curtin doesn’t seem to have much trust in Jesus Bueno or Cole Turner in midfield at this point. While Jim Curtin mentioned the possibility of playing two in defensive midfield (possibly Leon Flach and Jack Elliot) during his presser on Friday, I don’t see him going this route as it’s unclear who would play out wide opposite Alejandro Bedoya with Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan not in the squad. Expect new signing Chris Donovan to make an appearance off the bench at striker after a positive 20 minutes in Chicago.
With that said, here’s my expected XI in Columbus:
Watch the match at 7:30 ET on PHL 17. As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!