The Columbus Crew will be without two of the team’s most important players for Saturday’s MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. The Crew released its injury list on Thursday evening and, in addition to center back Vito Wormgoor, who is out for the year with an injury suffered at the MLS is Back Tournament in July, Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos are both not medically cleared to play, meaning they are out for the championship game.
Columbus announced earlier this week that one player had tested positive for COVID-19, while seven more returned to training. The Crew provided new information on Thursday evening, along with the injury report, that an additional player had tested positive for COVID-19.
MLS clubs do not have to disclose which players tested positive for COVID-19. Under MLS’s policy, a player that is confirmed positive has had two positive COVID-19 tests.
There is no sugarcoating this. This is close to a worst-case scenario for the Crew, with two of the team’s best players being ruled out for Saturday’s game against the defending MLS Cup champions shortly before the game. The Sounders have not announced any recent positive COVID-19 cases after midfielder Gustav Svensson missed the first two rounds of the playoffs after testing positive.
Nagbe was a crucial addition in the offseason, coming back to his home state from Atlanta United for $700,000 in Targeted Allocation Money, $150,000 in General Allocation Money and an international roster spot. Needless to say, that is a lot to give up for a player and shows Nagbe’s value.
The 30-year-old midfielder has validated that price this year with the way he has controlled the Crew’s midfield in 2020. Nagbe has played in 15 games this season, 14 starts, and recorded one goal and one assist. But it is his passing and ability to keep the ball, retaining possession that makes him so valuable as Nagbe has completed 94.9 percent of his passes.
To put Nagbe’s impact on the Black & Gold in another way, the Crew is 9-2-3 in games Nagbe starts. In all other games this season, Columbus went 3-4-2. Every team Nagbe has been on has won, winning an MLS Cup with both the Portland Timbers and in Atlanta.
Santos is not far behind Nagbe in players the Crew does not want on the sideline this weekend. The wide midfielder, who was expected to start on the left, had six goals and a career-best eight assist in 22 regular season games this year. In the playoffs, Santos has scored twice in the team’s three matches.
What Santos gives Columbus is something no other winger on the roster can, and that’s the ability to create wide and tuck into the pocket underneath the striker. Santos has done well to work with playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and combined with forward Gyasi Zardes throughout the season and was arguably playing his best soccer of his time with the Black & Gold of late.
With these two out, head coach Caleb Porter will have to shift his lineup and game plan. With two key pieces in possession and guys that create chances for the Crew, Columbus will have to find other ways to be dangerous and play.
In central midfield, the options are Fatai Alashe and rookies Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhalter, who himself is just returning from the not medically cleared to play list. Each of these players offers different attributes and it will be up to those around whoever gets the start to help Nagbe’s replacement in the biggest match of his career.
On the wing, the Crew has multiple options, but all are different than Santos. Youness Mokhtar is the most similar to Santos but seems to have fallen down the pecking order lately. Derrick Etienne Jr. is also recently off the medically unable to perform list but was a regular starter toward the end of the season. Emmanuel Boateng could also step into the starting lineup. Each of the last two offers speed similar to the expected starter on the right, Luis Diaz.
While this news is less than ideal for the Crew, especially this late in the week, Porter and president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko worked hard in the offseason to build a roster with depth and that depth has helped get the team to this point. The team has proven this year that it can overcome adversity and it will have to again if it is to bring home the club’s second ever MLS Cup.