By Chris Smith.
Kicking off late on Saturday and heading into the early hours of Sunday morning, Columbus Crew started their MLS is Back campaign in style with a 4-0 Hell is Real derby demolition of FC Cincinnati.
A Gyasi Zardes double and goals from Lucas Zelarayán and Youness Mokhtar did the damage for Caleb Porter’s side as they swept away their Ohio rivals with unerring ease.
Scaling back to the start of the 2020 season, the Crew have now taken seven points from their opening three games having triumphed 1-0 against New York City FC on the opening day and gained an impressive 1-1 draw against Seattle Sounders thereafter.
So, with six goals scored, just one conceded and no defeats so far, have the Crew placed themselves among the favourites to win the MLS is Back tournament?
Here are three reasons why that could be the case.
1. Porter Has Figured Out The Crew
Last season proved to be an incredibly tough transition for the Crew following Gregg Berhalter’s departure to take charge of the US Men’s National Team.
After a relatively solid opening Month, Porter oversaw a wretched run which saw the Crew win just one of 16 games. As a result, they plummeted down the standings and saw themselves checked out of the Playoff race.
Columbus remained relatively solid defensively, conceding 47 goals in 34 games — only Atlanta United (43), NYCFC (42) and DC United (38) conceded fewer in the Eastern Conference. However, they were incredibly lacklustre in the final third, with only FC Cincinnati (31) and Vancouver Whitecaps (37) scoring fewer than their 39 goals.
They were incredibly one-dimensional, with Gyasi Zardes (13) and Pedro Santos (11) netting over 61% of their regular-season goals. Chances were at a premium and if those two didn’t score, the Crew didn’t score.
Things did pick up toward the end of the campaign with Columbus taking points from the likes of Atlanta United, Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union. This season, they’re already looking far more fluid in possession.
The return of Darlington Nagbe has given them a much greater ability to play through the opposition press, while the ex-Atlanta United man is able to break up opposition play and put Columbus into transitional quickly. The full-backs continue to press high safe in the knowledge Nagbe has them covered, while Zardes and Santos are just as decisive in the final third.
2. Star Quality
We’ve already mentioned Zardes who, despite the criticism he gets at international level, is one of the most consistent goalscorers in Major League Soccer and is a playmaker’s dream with his intelligent movement. We’ve also noted the attacking exploits of Pedro Santos and the immense control Nagbe has brought to the midfield — the 29-year-old has really helped Porter put his stamp on this team.
However, arguably the most important player during the early stages of 2020 has been summer acquisition, Zelarayán. The 28-year-old Argentine arrived from Tigres for a club-record $7m fee during the off-season and has immediately set about reinvigorating the Columbus attack.
During his three games for the Crew so far, Zelarayán has notched two goals and an assist — including a beautiful free-kick against Cincy last time out, while he was also heavily involved in the build-up for Mokhtar’s goal.
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) July 12, 2020
Zelarayán is excellent at dropping into the pockets of space behind Zardes and is just as happy drifting out wide as he is staying central. This sort of movement makes him incredibly elusive to opposition defenders and has provided Porter’s side with a wonderful fluidity.
At the back, Eloy Room as proved to be a brilliant replacement for Zack Steffen in goal, while the likes of Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful are among the best attacking full-backs in MLS right now.
Right across the pitch, the Crew have serious quality. Thus far, Zelarayán appears to be that missing piece to knit the whole thing together.
3. Faltering Giants
While the Crew have rocked up in Orlando with their entire arsenal and looked genuinely terrifying in their MLS is Back opener — albeit against a terrible Cincinnati side — the same cannot be said of some of Major League Soccer’s giants of recent years.
Atlanta United have come into the tournament without star striker Josef Martinez and looked like sitting ducks up against New York Red Bulls’ intense press in their opener on Saturday, while reigning MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders could only manage a 0-0 draw against San Jose Earthquakes. Brian Schmetzer’s side played well and generated decent chances, but the likes of Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro looked unusually nervous in front of goal — early-season rust or a sign of things to come?
You also have to take into account that LAFC are without the league’s MVP, Carlos Vela. Bob Bradley has built an incredible supporting cast around the Mexican but it remains to be seen how they’ll cope without him.
Last year’s MLS Cup runners-up, Toronto FC, are having to negotiate an injury to Jozy Altidore, while Javier Hernandez has failed to live up to the massive expectations placed upon him so far since signing for LA Galaxy.
Huge question marks surround some of MLS’ biggest hitters and with the Crew hitting their stride right away both at the start of the season and in their first game of this tournament, circumstance might just dictate they make a real fist of lifting their first trophy since 2009.