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No excuses but the Crew had to be different without Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe

The Black & Gold aren’t using it as a reason for some poor form, but the absence of key players really changes the way the team plays.

Columbus Crew SC v FC Cincinnati Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Last season, the Columbus Crew dealt with a rash of injuries and it was reflected in the team’s play. The coaches and players had no issue talking about it because it was obvious why the team struggled; it was a reason, not an excuse.

In 2020, the Crew has taken a different approach. While the injuries haven’t been as numerous, they have been arguably more impactful. The Black & Gold lost center back Vito Wormgoor for the year in just the third game of the regular season. Attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan has missed seven games with various injuries and central midfielder Darlington Nagbe has been out since early September with a knee issue, forcing him to sit out eight matches. Goalkeeper Eloy Room wasn’t available for six games this year, including the last three.

Those four players make up the spine of Columbus’ normal starting 11, arguably the most important positions — along with forward Gyasi Zardes — on the roster. Wormgoor, Zelarayan and Nagbe were the Black & Gold’s three major offseason acquisitions with Zelarayan and Nagbe setting records for their transfers.

It could be argued that there was no reason for the Crew to complain about injuries early on because the team was winning, sitting at the top of the MLS standings for most of the season. When the team lost to Toronto FC 3-1 in late September, in a match that was at the end of a three-in-eight-day span and a game in which Nagbe didn’t play, this writer thought the complaints would start.

For sure the local media would hear about the injuries following the back-to-back bad losses — and poor performances — to the Montreal Impact and FC Cincinnati, I thought, when all of the major pieces didn’t play. But the Black & Gold players and coaches continued to avoid excuses, refusing to point to injuries.

So instead, I asked head coach Caleb Porter about the injuries. Not to give him an out for a slide from first to third place in the Eastern Conference, but rather because losing four players that are difference-makers in Major League Soccer makes it tough for any team to win games — hello Los Angeles Football Club and Atlanta United.

Here is what Porter told me: “How much does it change having Lucas and Darlington out? It’s probably like (the Cleveland Browns) having Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. out.”

This may not have been the best analogy because, as it was pointed out to me after I tweeted this quote, some Browns fans believe their team may be better without Mayfield, but Porter’s message is clear: losing players such as Zelarayan and Nagbe is going to affect a team. That’s why Zelarayan and Nagbe are who they are.

“I personally think people should realize how important certain guys are and what it does to your team,” Porter continued. “At the end of the day, those guys run a lot of our attack and they’re key players.”

Porter was quick to point out, as has been the M.O. this year, that this team is still good enough to win games without key players, but it does make it more difficult.

With Zelarayan and Nagbe — Wormgoor and Room as well, but to a lesser extent — the Crew can play the way Porter likes. The team can possess the ball, build out of the back, attack with fluidity, counter-press, all of the things the head coach discusses on a regular basis. The play looks much like it did in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament when all the spokes are in the wheel, as Porter often says.

When Zelarayan, the main chance creator, or Nagbe, the team’s best player on the ball, is out of the lineup, it is harder to do those things the way the team likes. When both players are out, tactics have to change. And it may not be obvious to the casual observer, but Columbus has changed a lot in the team’s approach since both players have been out of the lineup.

“We (look to change our system) every game,” Porter explained. “It’s not like we’ve just played the exact same way or tried to do the exact same thing every game because we have Lucas and Darlington out… The layers that go behind our planning and our preparation and even our changes, there’s a lot of work that goes into that analysis of the opponent, the analysis of our team and the personnel we have, how we can execute a plan that’s going to fit the group that we’re playing, the group that’s healthy.”

Without Zelarayan and Nagbe, the Crew has, in some games, consciously conceded possession. Against Cincinnati, the Black & Gold looked to bypass the midfield entirely — something that hasn’t been seen often in Columbus since the Robert Warzycha era — and played more direct. Porter has gone away from his preferred one pocket winger and one speed winger approach that has been a staple of his teams for years, preferring two faster players on the field the last two games.

At first, it wasn’t successful, and Porter took responsibility for that. But on Sunday, still without Zelarayan and Nagbe, Columbus defeated New York City FC 3-1 at home in the best performance and maybe the most important result in some time.

And following that win, it appears the Crew will get those important pieces back, as they could be available for Saturday’s game at the Houston Dynamo.

“They’ve progressed well,” Porter said on Thursday. “Eloy, Darlington and Lucas, all three have been in training this week full out. It’s been nice to have the full week to be able to train the full group but also to work in some guys that have been injured, so that’s been nice.”

While the Black & Gold haven’t made excuses for not having these players, they will certainly be glad to get at least three of them back for the stretch run. Porter wants his team as healthy as possible as the group enters the MLS Cup playoffs in about three weeks’ time because that is when the Crew is at its best and most dangerous.

“It is a big priority in these last five games to plug those guys in the right way,” Porter said. “To make sure we’re at full strength and we have a good rhythm and we have every single player 90-minutes fit and in form.”