The 2020 Major League Soccer season is quickly approaching and Columbus Crew SC will kick off its 25th campaign on Sunday, March 1 against New York City FC. As is the case in most offseasons, especially after an unsuccessful year like 2019 was for the Crew, there have been changes made for the Black & Gold.
As part of our preseason preview, Massive Report is going position by position, to give readers a breakdown of what to expect in the coming year.
A huge part of Caleb Porter’s 4-2-3-1 philosophy is playing through the central midfielders. The bridge from defense forward to attack, helping with defense, creating ball distribution, the midfield is both the figurative and literal center of play for the Crew this season. This area is emblematic of the roster turnover that the offseason brought, with the departure of captain/hometown favorite Wil Trapp, the release of longtime playmaker Frederico Higuain and Pedro Santos’s return to the wing. Darlington Nagbe is reunited with Porter in hopes of bringing some tactical stability to the Crew’s spine.
Let’s take a look at each player
Nagbe is very familiar with Porter and his system, having worked under him both in college at Akron, and when they won an MLS Cup together for the Portland Timbers. Never a goal machine, Nagbe contributes by bringing the ball up the field and feeding the attack. Look for Nagbe to create plenty of chances for winger Pedro Santos and creative midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, and at least creating space for long ball opportunities to forward Gyasi Zardes. Without Wil Trapp to hold defensively, Nagbe will need to track back more often to keep the outside backs from being exposed. But if he can remain disciplined defensively, he can help protect against the counter attack. He is loaded with intangibles as a leader in Porter’s system and a proven winner. The Crew (and Porter’s) success rests on Nagbe’s ability to replicate form from his 2015 and 2019 MLS Cup runs. Hopefully, his long-desired return to his home state will inspire the best yet.
The only holdover from last year’s central midfield, Artur will look to bring some grit and continuity to the defense. The Brazilian struggled at times last year in communicating with Trapp. With Nagbe more apt to drift forward, communication between the two midfielders will be imperative. Artur will need to serve as a defensive link between the attacking midfielders and the defensive core. With outside backs that may tend to roam on the attack, it will be important for Artur to help the defense during the counter attack. With some lack of depth at the position, his reliability last year (30 games started) will be very important to continue this season.
Here is where things get a little murky. Not that the son of former Crew manager Gregg Berhalter cannot step up, we just don’t know what to expect yet. Central midfield is probably Columbus’ thinnest position. If last year’s injury bug carries over at all to Nagbe or Artur, there will be big shoes for Berhalter or Aidan Morris to fill. There’s no doubt that Crew supporters familiar with the Berhalter family would love to see the 18 year old blossom into a hometown legend and mainstay for the club. The Westerville native is just unproven at this level. A product of the Crew Academy, Berhalter had great success before moving to college. He made 16 appearances at North Carolina his freshman year but has limited experience (read none) at the MLS level. How he will stand up to the big leagues is still a question mark.
Fellow Crew Academy product and teammate of Berhalter, Aidan Morris is another young talent that Crew upper management hopes will be able to take the big step into the MLS. Another Homegrown prospect, Morris started in 21 of 22 games at Indiana University in his freshman year in Bloomington. Morris did rack up some impressive Big Ten stats for the Hoosiers (two goals and eight assists, not shabby for a central midfielder), and the New Albany native brought home TDS Freshman of the Year and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He was also named first-team All-Big Ten, as well as to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and the All-Big Ten Tournament team after leading the Hoosiers to a Big Ten Championship over Michigan (which should endear him to central Ohio fans). Morris seems to have a few more accolades and some more winning experience than Berhalter, but hopefully both can step up if needed.
A hugely important position in any system, the central midfield is crucial for Porter’s 4-2-3-1 system. Barring any more roster moves, it will prove to have some of the most consistent and proven talent with Nagbe and Artur but will also lack experienced depth with yet-unproven Berhalter and Morris. Regardless, as the Crew’s midfield goes, so goes the rest of the club.