In 2020, the Columbus Crew has played 28 games heading into Saturday’s MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. With a season this successful, one would think the lineup would be consistent throughout the otherwise shortened season but with injuries, a condensed schedule and COVID-19, it seems like the Black & Gold have sent out 28 different lineups. The 29th, and most important game will be no different.
With lineup mainstays Pedro Santos and Darlington Nagbe out for the championship game, head coach Caleb Porter will once again have to get creative with his starting 1.
The Crew has relied on plenty of depth this season, but Santos and Nagbe are both nearly irreplaceable spots in the lineup. So there is no surprise that the final Supporters’ XI of 2020 was one of the most contentious. As the Black & Gold looks to win it all, let’s look at how you, the supporters, chose to line up.
As the Crew loses both Nagbe and Santos, the team gets several key players back from the medically not cleared to play list. One of the most important returns starts in goal. Andrew Tarbell did a yeoman’s job standing in for Eloy Room in both the Eastern Conference semifinal and final, posting two clean sheets on the Crew’s way to earning a spot in the MLS Cup Final. In the Supporters’ XI voting, Tarbell got his highest vote total as a backup, but starting Room gets the start as he returns to availability today.
The back four continues to be consistent with Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams being flanked by Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela. Columbus has relied heavily on its defense in the playoff and face one of the biggest challenges in the high-powered Seattle front three.
The real contention happens in the midfield, where both Nagbe and Santos leave big holes. Artur, Lucas Zelarayan and Luis Diaz have come up big for the Crew in the postseason and all get the start. After those three, things got a lot closer. Derrick Etienne Jr. and Aidan Morris narrowly edged out Youness Mohktar to sub in at the midfield. Gyasi Zardes naturally gets the start at striker.
One of the biggest conversations this week has been about who will start in goal. With Tarbell’s impressive performance, many were calling to keep the hot hand in. But Room, as the starting goalkeeper, was brought into this team for just this occasion. Porter will go back to his starter in the most important game of the year.
While the talent and skill Santos and Nagbe bring to the lineup cannot be replicated, the Crew has several options in depth at the midfield. Etienne Jr has earned the trust of Porter, and a spot in the Predicted XI. Fatai Alashe was brought to the club earlier this season and played several games as a replacement for Nagbe when the starting midfielder was injured. Alashe provides a little extra experience compared to Morris, and Porter may look for that experience in such a big game.
In any year, the MLS Cup Final would almost assuredly be the most challenging game of the season. This year, the Crew has had to overcome tests to the team’s depth on its way to this spot. The Black & Gold will need to rely on that depth if they want to lift the MLS Cup on Saturday night.