Columbus Crew SC learned on Thursday its first three opponents for the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, which will mark the resumption of the Major League Soccer season next month in Orlando, Florida. And, after a brief evaluation, it seems the Black & Gold have a fairly good chance of advancing from Group E, where the team landed with Ohio rivals FC Cincinnati, Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls.
With the two best teams in each group and four of the six third-placed teams all moving to the knockout round, qualifying is not a herculean task by any means, but, even though head coach Caleb Porter expects tough matches in Group E, the Crew could easily win its group and advance.
“There’s some really good team in our group,” Porter reflected after Friday’s training session. “In Cincinnati, they’re going to be hungry to prove something and win something being that they’re a new club. And obviously with the Red Bulls and Atlanta, they’ve already won things, so they have a strong tradition of winning. We like the group, we’re excited about it, but it won’t be easy.”
With that said, here’s why Massive Report thinks the Black & Gold can win all of their three group matches in Central Florida.
Why the Crew can beat Atlanta United
Atlanta is still one of the best teams in the league and should bee the Black & Gold’s strongest opponent in Group E. However, forward Josef Martínez’s injury would be a tough blow to any team in MLS and Atlanta is no exception, especially if Adam Jahn is his primary backup.
The Georgians managed to win both their season-opener, when the Venezuelan striker got injured, and their second match, already without him, but it’s obvious they won’t have the same firepower moving forward. Ezequiel Barco, who scored in both matches, and Pity Martínez are both top offensive talents in the league, but they’re not necessarily goal scorers.
Head coach Frank de Boer will also need some time to rebuild his defense and midfield after the departure of two pillars in past seasons in former Crew center back Michael Parkhurst and current Black & Gold midfielder Darlington Nagbe and it’s unlikely he managed to do that in the five matches his team played in 2020.
Why the Crew can beat FC Cincinnati
The easy reason is that Columbus did so in great fashion last year, but there are more reasons than that. Cincinnati is clearly a work in progress right now and it’s hard to believe it will be anywhere near completion when the MLS is Back Tournament kicks off in Central Florida for a number of reasons.
For starters, the event will mark the debut of their new head coach, Jaap Stam, who joined the team during the suspension of play and is yet to work with the entire group at once. It’s hard to believe any major progress will be achieved or any of the Dutch manager’s tactical concepts will be absorbed during the few weeks he’ll have leading up to the event.
Also, Cincinnati’s roster in 2020 is considerably better than its 2019 version, but it’s not quite there yet. The “Hell is Real” derby rivals made significant investments to upgrade their offense, bringing in the likes of Jurgen Locadia, Yuya Kubo and Siem de Jong, but still lost their first two regular matches to Atlanta and the Red Bulls, teams they will face again in Orlando next month.
Why the Crew can beat the Red Bulls
For years the Red Bulls have been praised as one of the most organized and tough teams to play against in MLS and while most of it remains true in 2020, there’s a big difference in one element that massively impact soccer games – talent.
Bradley Wright-Philipps, Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, Luis Robles and Kemar Lawrence are no longer with the team and their departures haven’t necessarily been replaced with players of the same stature, putting an even heavier burden on the team’s playing system for success.
The Red Bulls kept some very good players on the roster, including American international center back Aaron Long, winger Daniel Royer and Paraguayan playmaker Alejandro ‘Kaku’ Gamarra, and head coach Chris Armas does a good job, but they’re probably one step below in comparison to the team they were for the last five years or so.