It is a big night for the Columbus Crew. The Black & Gold travel to Audi Field on Wednesday night for an Eastern Conference clash with D.C. United. The Crew has just five points in the last six matches, not exactly the form the team wants to have heading into the MLS Cup playoffs in two weeks.
While head coach Caleb Porter and his team know they need points to try and catch the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Black & Gold also understand there is a balancing act between winning games and making sure the team enters the playoffs as healthy as possible. That balancing act is reflected in the Crew’s lineup against United.
Eloy Room makes his second straight start in goal for Columbus after returning from a three-game absence due to injury. Room made his return in the 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night and had an up-and-down performance back in net.
In front of Room are two center backs he is familiar with in captain Jonathan Mensah and Aboubacar Keita and two fullbacks that haven’t seen a lot of time in Waylon Francis (left) and Chris Cadden (right). Those players replace Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful respectively, both of which have been fixtures in the lineup of late. For Francis, Wednesday marks the Costa Rican’s first appearance of the season after seeing action in 17 games a year ago. Cadden has played seven games this year but last appeared for the Crew on Aug. 27.
In the midfield, the return of Darlington Nagbe to the starting lineup didn’t last long, as he is replaced by Fatai Alashe. Alashe partners Sebastian Berhalter in the center of the park. This is Berhalter’s ninth appearance of his rookie year, but his first since he started Aug. 27. Luis Diaz and Youness Mokhtar resume their spots on the Columbus wings after not starting of late. This reverts the Black & Gold to its more traditional look of having one winger (Diaz) who can stretch the field and another (Mokthar) who plays in the pocket. Pedro Santos remains as the team’s chance creator in the playmaker spot.
Up top, Krisztian Nemeth makes his second straight start after arriving to the Black & Gold earlier this month. He deputizes again for the injured Gyasi Zardes, who hurt his knee late last week.
On the bench, Tarbell is, as usual, the backup for Room. Grant Lilliard, who is yet to see the field, is the option if needed at center back after it was announced that usual starter Josh Williams was serving the third of his four-game suspension in this match on Wednesday afternoon. Hector Jimenez returns to the game day roster after not traveling to Houston but there is no Valenzuela or Afful in reserve. Artur and Nagbe are both on the bench, as are wingers Emmanuel Boateng and Derrick Etienne Jr. Lucas Zelarayan, who played 45 minutes in his return from an injury on Saturday, is available and Jordan Hamilton is an option up top.
Nagbe and Zelarayan are likely to check into this game at some point in the second half in order to continue to get minutes after returning from injury. Both players saw extended minutes over the weekend and Porter doesn’t want to push them in this midweek contest.