There are some quite noticeable differences between the Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution. From the way the two play to how they found their ways to the 2020 Major League Soccer Eastern Conference Final. These two teams won’t fool anyone for twins.
However, if there is something that connects the Black & Gold and their next MLS Cup playoff opponent, it is how reliant the two teams are on their Designated Players. And the fact that both teams had to deal with their absences during extended periods of the regular season.
During portions of 2020, both the Crew and New England missed their most influential players to injuries for prolonged stretches and, inevitably, saw their performances drop substantially.
Columbus missed record-signing Lucas Zelarayan for seven matches and Darlington Nagbe for eight in the middle of the year. The Black & Gold had their stars together in the center of the field in 14 of the team’s 25 matches in 2020 and their impact was easy to see.
With both on the field, the Crew won nine of its 14 matches, averaging 2.14 points per match, a mark that would have won them team the Supporters’ Shield if sustained over the course of the entire season. With only one of the two available, the Black & Gold still managed to remain somewhat competitive, triumphing in four out of seven games, adding 1.85 points each game on average. When neither of Zelarayan and Nagbe was on the field, though, the Crew was pedestrian at best, winning only one of its four matches and averaging one point per contest, a performance that wouldn’t be enough to qualify the team for the playoffs.
The Revolution has been substantially more unfortunate than Columbus in regards to consistently having the team’s best players on the field. Midfielder and team captain Carles Gil and forward Gustavo Bou, two of the team’s three Designated Players, only got to play together in seven of the team’s 26 matches in 2020.
New England has been formidable when that was the case, though, winning five of those seven games, including three in the MLS Cup playoffs. With both on the field, Bruce Arena’s team averaged impressive 2.28 points per game.
Much of the Revolution’s disconnect was due to Gil, who was available for only nine matches in 2020. This forced Bou to carry the team during most of the season. When one of the Spanish or the Argentinean midfielders was on the field, New England dropped to 1.35 points per game, with five victories in 16 matches. When the team had to play without its major stars, it secured only one win in three matches, averaging one point per game just like the Crew.
Despite the missed time from the DPs, the Revolution still finished on 32 points, only nine behind the Black & Gold, and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
One thing that differentiates the impact each Designated Player combo has on their teams is their goal production. Zelarayan and Nagbe have combined for eight goals and eight assists so far in 2020 while Bou and Gil have produced 10 goals and nine assists. However, while the Crew has been able to keep its goal per game average steady between 1.5 when neither of these DPs was available and 1.85 when both were on the field, New England saw its average drop from 1.85 with the stars in the lineup to just 1.0 without them.
“They are one of the best teams in the league,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said about the opponents on Thursday. “The only thing that really has kept them from being a higher seed was just that those guys are out. Similar to when we had Darlington and Lucas out for so long. So, I think they did a good job of managing that time.”
During portions of the season, both the Crew and the Revs had to grind to get results without the team’s main performers on the field. But both teams did it and now both teams will be at full force with a spot in the MLS Cup Final is in play Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium.
For the Crew, that means playing against an opponent who is healthy and in its best form of the year, but also being able to use its most powerful weapons in the most important moment of the season.
“Bruce always knew those guys were going to be back in like I knew Lucas and Darlington were going to be back in and I think his calm and composure during that time when they weren’t in and then his understanding of when they were going to be in and knowing that his team will peak and gel,” Porter added. “In some ways, it almost sets up the perfect way to get your team to peak. I knew the same thing with Lucas and Darlington, so I didn’t worry when they were out. I just knew we needed to grind through and then having those guys back in, you have to peak at the right time. If you peak too early or too late, you’re not going to do it.”