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What we learned: Crew 1 New York City FC 0

The Black & Gold got the first win of 2020 and there were plenty of takeaways.

Columbus Crew SC opened the 2020 Major League Soccer season on Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 win against New York City FC. While it wasn’t a perfect performance from the Black & Gold and left plenty to build on going forward, it was a victory against the best team in the Eastern Conference a year ago, who only lost six games in the regular season.

For a team that had a good amount of turnover this offseason, there was plenty to take away from the first match of the new year. Let’s dive into our observations from the three-point performance.

Lucas Zelarayan is the real deal and will only get better

When a team brings in a record signing, there are expectations. Sometimes it takes even the best players time to settle in and adjust to those expectations. Lucas Zelarayan is not one of those players.

The Black & Gold’s No. 10 made his debut against City and showed why head coach Caleb Porter and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko went out and got him. He ran the show in the middle of the attacking half for Columbus, getting involved in nearly all of the Crew’s dangerous plays. Porter called him a “game-changer” and that much a blind person could have seen.

Just three minutes into the game, the Argentine went streaking behind the New York City defense, looking to get on a long ball from goalkeeper Eloy Room. He was clipped slightly by Maxime Chanot and the referee had no choice but to show a red card. Zelarayan also scored the Black & Gold’s lone goal in the 56th minute on a spectacular individual play where he spun in the penalty box, kept control of the ball and curled it into the far upper 90. If his teammates finished better, Zelarayan could have ended his impressive inaugural game with the club with even better statistics.

While Zelarayan played a major part in the win, Porter said after the game that he believes the Crew can do a better job of getting the No. 10 involved more. Zelarayan had 65 touches, eighth most on the Black & Gold. The playmaker also admitted postgame that attack remains a work in progress and will only get better as the chemistry continues to build. Remember, forward Gyasi Zardes missed a good chunk of the preseason while with the United States Men’s National Team.

This defense is going to be tough to contend with

Defense wasn’t a major problem for the Crew in 2019. The Black & Gold allowed 47 goals, the fourth fewest in the Eastern Conference, despite a number of different backlines and goalkeepers. But the players and coaching staff want to improve on that number this year and will strive to be among the league’s elite defensive units. On Sunday, they looked like they’re on the way.

While the Crew did play against a 10-man New York City team for 87 minutes — a group largely of which featured in Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League game — it’s clear that this backline has improved. The return of Milton Valenzuela, one of MLS’s best left backs two years ago, from an ACL tear that robbed him of the entirety of last season was step one. Then the addition of center back Vito Wormgoor, who announced himself to the league and Anton Tinnerholm with a crunching tackle that earned him a yellow card in the 10th minute, will provide Jonathan Mensah with a steady and reliable partner that he hasn’t had in recent years. And while Harrison Afful isn’t an elite defender by any stretch, he was good enough today.

Then you add in Darlington Nagbe, who made multiple important tackles in this game despite that not being what he’s known for, and Artur playing in front of them, as well as the steady Eloy Room in goal, and this group has a chance to shut teams down.

When New York City did attack — they managed seven shots, three on goal — the Crew had an answer to it. There weren’t many nervy moments where City really should have scored, which is certainly a good sign. The Black & Gold also managed defensive set pieces as well, which is important.

There will certainly be tougher tests this year against full-strength teams when the offense is firing. But for Week 1, with two new starters stepping in, against a group that did manage to score 63 goals last year, getting a shutout — something Room didn’t have until the penultimate game of the season last year — is an impressive start.

The depth will push this team far

It may seem strange to say that after just one game, but trust me, this team has some serious depth. And after the injuries destroyed last season, it is obvious that the Crew made it a goal this offseason to go out and add talent.

On Sunday, we saw Luis Diaz, a starter for most of his time with the team last year, come off the bench and use his speed to terrorize New York City’s backline in the second half. If Diaz were more compose, he would have scored a goal and he almost set up another one. Then Gyasi Zardes got a break — subbing off earlier than he did all but once last year — because Porter trusts Fanendo Adi can come in and help kill off a game, which he did. Finally, Chris Cadden made his long-awaited debut, and the right back played on the left wing.

Beyond Sunday’s three substitutes, the Black & Gold have three additional options at center back, a former all-star reserve at left back, another burner who can come in on the wings and two young forwards who will be hungry to take their chance when it comes. There’s so much depth that utility man Hector Jimenez didn’t even make the bench against NYCFC, something that didn’t happen often in recent years.

If this team has another run of injuries, it is now much more well equipped to handle it. There’s also the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament fans would like to see the Crew take more seriously, which will now feature players who are backups for the Black & Gold but could start for other clubs.

Depth does not a champion make, but it certainly goes a long way.

As is always the case, we’re going to learn more about this team with more games. But in Week 1, an imperfect performance still resulted in a win against a team most people think will make a run for the MLS Cup. That’s not a bad place to start.