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The Crew’s midfield trio is rising to the occasion in MLS Cup playoffs

Artur, Nagbe and Zelarayan played arguably their best match together in the Eastern Conference Final.

MLS: New England Revolution at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Columbus Crew signed Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe ahead of the 2020 Major League Soccer season, it became clear that the midfield trio formed by these two and Artur would be one of the team’s main assets in the upcoming season.

Several pundits and experts went beyond to indicate that the team’s success in 2020 would strongly depend on how well these three could play together. That theory proved true during the season with the Crew playing some of the best soccer in the league when Zelarayan, Nagbe and Artur were together on the field and seeing a significant drop of performance when the first two missed time due to injuries.

From all the good performances the Black & Gold trio had during the season, it’s hard to find one that reflects their importance for the Crew as well as the one they had on the 1-0 victory against the New England Revolution at the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday.

It’s easy to point out the impact they had in the result by just looking at Artur’s goal and Zelarayan’s assist, but their contributions in the team’s triumph went far beyond that play.

“The way we play, those three guys are key, they give us the balance we need on both sides of the ball,” head coach Caleb Porter reflected. of the win on Sunday “They’re important when we want to press and win the ball back but also when we have it and want to possess. We always say that we attack and defend with 11 players, but these three are the engine room of our team. I had a very good group in Portland with (Diego) Valeri, (Diego) Chara and Nagbe, but these guys here are very good as well. The reason we won in Portland was having those three and I’d say the reason we are where we are here is that we have these three.”

The last match’s stats back up Porter’s assessment in regards to his midfielder trio. Artur, Nagbe and Zelarayan combined for 135 of the team’s 421 passes during the match, including the Brazilian’s 56, the second-best mark on the team. Most importantly, each of the midfielders connected more than 87 percent of their attempts – with Nagbe hitting 95.1 percent and Zelarayan, who had a match-high four key passes, at 92.1 percent.

“It’s amazing to play with them,” said Artur, who scored three of his four career goals in the last nine matches. “They’re both great people and excellent players. We have a great relationship both on and off the field. They make the game a lot easier for me and I believe I make things easier for them as well, so it’s a good combination.”

The Black & Gold trio also made their impact felt on the other side of the ball. Zelarayan’s role on Crew’s defensive system is to start pressing up top with Gyasi Zardes, so he typically doesn’t get a lot of defensive actions. But the playmaker did still managed to have one tackle and one interception against the Revolution.

Deeper on the field, Artur and Nagbe had outstanding defensive performances and completely outplayed New England’s defensive midfield duo of Matt Polster and Scott Caldwell, proving a huge advantage for the Crew in the center of the field. The Columbus midfielders combined for five tackles and six interceptions while their opponents only registered four tackles and two interceptions between them.

In that aspect, Nagbe’s production was particularly impressive with the 30-year-old midfielder registering two tackles, four interceptions and three clearances, delivering well above his career averages of 1.2 tackles, 0.6 interceptions and 0.3 clearances per match.

“Those guys are our engine, they get our team moving”, defender Josh Williams said after the match. “To have guys who work on both sides of the ball, and work tirelessly, and as good as Lucas, Darlington and Artur are on the ball… I swear, they just get out of situations that you just don’t see very often. These guys are magicians with the ball in the way they can manipulate it, and stop-start.

“On top of that, they’re great passers. To have these three guys in front of me who are so gifted on one side of the ball, but as soon as the ball is turned over, they’re animals that are hunting, they’re beasts.”

The Crew now will now face the Seattle Sounders next Saturday in the MLS Cup Final at MAPFRE Stadium after a 3-2 win against Minnesota United on Monday night. And in facing the defending champions, the Black & Gold know exactly what kind of performance they will need from their star midfielders to win the MLS Cup for the second time in club history.

“We’re good on the ball but obviously, we’re a good defensive team,” Porter acknowledged. “That’s usually what makes the difference, it’s the balance, we’re a very balanced team. We are going to need that in the Final because we are going to face a very good attacking team. We will know our opponent, but if you look at Seattle and Minnesota, both teams have really good attacking players, so that defensive side is going to be just as important as how we keep the ball, how we attack and how we score goals.”