Every professional sports team goes through injuries and this year, the Columbus Crew has had its fair share. Although those injuries don’t normally have an impact on a team’s top players at the same time.
After a tough stretch of matches, where Columbus was without central midfielder Darlington Nagbe and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, their return was expected to give the team momentum going into the MLS Cup playoffs. Until the club released the team’s lineup against the Houston Dynamo and Gyasi Zardes’ name wasn’t listed.
A day before their trip to Texas, Zardes suffered an injury at the end of practice. According to head coach Caleb Porter, the injury occurred basically on the final play of practice and unexpectedly ruled Zardes out of the game against the Dynamo.
“I had a knee knock. It was just weird,” Zardes said this week. “Do I want to force it and play on it with playoffs right around the corner or do I want to take some time off to heal it? That was the discussion between me, Caleb and our physio staff.
“I felt like we made the right decision. We already clinched a playoff spot and I think it’s important as we go into this last stretch of games of being healthy.”
Before Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to D.C. United, Zardes was given a 50/50 chance at playing, according to Porter. About the decision to sit him and rest, Zardes told the media, “I always wanna play every single game. Even if I’m hurt I wanna be on the field. That’s just my mentality. But we’re trying to look at the bigger picture and really be smart with managing playing a game playing against a D.C. United or being healthy to play a game against Philly and Orlando and the rest of the season.”
Long term focus for a team that has their eyes set on the MLS Cup makes sense, but that doesn’t mean sitting out was easy for Zardes short term. According to Zardes, it was difficult watching his team from the sideline, something he has rarely done during his time with the Crew.
The time on the sideline gave Zardes a different perspective. It allowed him to view the games as other see them and helped him have some understanding as to what the issues are for a team with that has just one win in its last seven games.
“Watching from the sideline, in the D.C. game, we got unlucky on a couple of opportunities defending set pieces or crosses,” Zardes said.
Columbus’ lone goal allowed in the nation’s capital was on a cross to Julian Gressel in the 32nd minute. D.C. looked dangerous on crosses and set pieces throughout the match, with a sailing cross by Gressel to Gelmin Rivas almost putting the home team up 2-0.
How can Columbus improve on crosses and defending set pieces?
“I think it’s early on just communicating and making sure everybody is matched up,” Zardes said. “Also, we watch film on the team we’re playing. Teams set plays and set picks so we just have to be alert and communicate and win your battle. Win your 1 v. 1 battle and hope that your teammate also will have your back because you never know where the ball is going to go”
This was not a comment against the club’s defensive group. It reflects the Black & Gold’s team effort on offense and defense, with the club’s forward concerned with his team’s performance. On the contrary, he felt that it was time for the offense to step up towards the end of this season.
“Our defenders have been there for us the first part of the season like no other,” Zardes said. “All the shutouts we’ve had, so I think it’s time that us attacking players raise our level to give our defenders some cushion.”
“This is a huge game this weekend,” Zardes said. “It’s gonna be an amazing opportunity to battle against one of the best teams in the league on our home turf.”
Zardes’ return will be important for Sunday and the final two games of the regular season. But the Crew really need the forward to be ready once the MLS Cup playoffs begin.
One area of expertise that Zardes brings to this side is his playoff experience. In his 11 playoff matches and an MLS Cup victory which included a goal in the final, he knows the importance of having home-field advantage. That is true now more than ever, with the matches moving from the home and away legs of the past to a single-elimination bracket.
“There’s no better place to play than on your home field,” Zardes said. “You really have that advantage because not only are you traveling the day of the game, and staying in a hotel for a short amount of time, and traveling to the field. When you’re at home you can relax at home and then drive straight to the stadium. So, I think it plays a factor.”
Columbus has the opportunity to maximize the number of home games the team has in the playoffs over the next three matches. With Toronto FC’s 1-0 loss to New York City FC on Wednesday, the Crew can still get to second place in the East. Earning second will give the Black & Gold home field until a potential Eastern Conference final, if a first-place Philadelphia also makes a deep playoff run.
The Crew isn’t looking that far ahead, however, and certainly not this next match against the Union.
“We’re focusing on Philly and that’s our main priority right now,” Zardes said. “Taking care of business this weekend and then we’ll worry about the remainder of the games for the rest of the season.”