On Saturday afternoon, the Columbus Crew starts the team’s postseason journey toward the MLS Cup against the New York Red Bulls. This single-elimination playoff is the goal for every Major League Soccer side going into the season. Lifting the cup at the end is the ultimate end-of-season award.
Columbus’ 2020 MLS journey has been anything but consistent, thanks to COVID-19 and a laundry list of injuries that affected almost every matchday lineup. One constant is the Massive Report asking you to choose who you think should start. Here is what our readers picked for the Crew’s lineup on Saturday:
This lineup should look familiar if you voted two weeks ago before the Black & Gold’s 2-1 victory over Atlanta United on Decision Day because it’s the same selections. Head coach Caleb Porter liked the lineup too because that’s who he started to help secure the Crew’s home match today against New York.
With two weeks off, and a team coming into the playoffs healthy, some decisions are easy. MLS Best XI center back Jonathan Mensah, who hasn’t missed a single minute of any Columbus match this year, is one pick. MLS Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos, Darlington Nagbe and Artur have been readers’ picks throughout the year too when they were not injured.
The toughest decisions are at the second winger position, opposite Santos, and the second center back. For this match, you went with Derrick Etienne Jr. and Josh Williams. Etienne started two of the final three matches of the regular season, coming in as a substitute in the third against Orlando City SC. From match to match, this role is a toss-up, but Porter has been using Etienne and Luis Diaz more frequently as the season went on.
Williams and Aboubacar Keita give the Crew different things at center back. One is an MLS veteran and the other a young professional, just a couple of seasons removed from collegiate play. After Vito Wormgoor’s injury in the third match of the season, Porter has favored the veteran and so have our readers.
Rounding out the lineup, Eloy Room, who just won MLS Save of the Year, can be written in pen between the posts. The goalkeeper is the team’s vocal backline leader and, when he’s healthy, gets the nod.
At fullback, Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela had a tumultuous 2019 season due to injuries, but have remained mostly healthy in 2020. This was enough for at least one of them to be in every match that Columbus has played.
Former MLS Cup champion Gyasi Zardes was your selection for starting forward. Krisztian Nemeth has seen the field a lot since coming to the Crew midseason, but mostly in substitute roles or when Zardes was out with injury.
There isn’t much difference between Porter’s final match starting XI, your selections and Massive Report’s predicted 11. Leading up to Decision Day, Porter stated he wanted to get the best players out on the field. He selected mostly the same group for the remaining three matches leading into the postseason minus a few substitutions in the road match against Orlando City SC.
On the defensive side, Williams and Mensah are a strong duo. Columbus’ defense has the highest total of shutouts for the season (9) and the second-fewest goals allowed (21). While Keita has had good matches himself, the veteran work of Williams has been more consistent and with less error.
Valenzuela and Afful, while not appearing to be as dangerous in years past on the offensive side, still cover a lot of ground and don’t shy away from defensive responsibilities. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Waylon Francis get some second half minutes. Since his return from injury, he’s gotten a start and multiple substitution appearances.
Offensively, Nagbe and Artur have a dynamic midfield partnership. One that has even allowed Artur to play more forward, resulting in two regular season goals, compared to his zero regular season total leading into his fourth season in Columbus.
Zelarayan and Santos are a given, and a big part of this team’s goal scoring and distribution. The biggest question is that second winger role. Etienne and Diaz are the favorites to start if you judge the last couple of weeks of the season. Diaz hasn’t scored a goal this season but has contributed with three assists (matching his 2019 total). Etienne has had a goal and two assists.
Massive Report is putting Diaz in today’s spot, knowing that it’s as close to a coin flip for Porter as he has on his matchday lineup. He was able to forego the COVID-19 quarantine protocol because of a charter flight back from his international duty with Costa Rica. With the club having two weeks off, and Diaz playing during that time, it may be valuable as the beginning of the match may see both sides finding their match legs again.