Major League Soccer is officially back and yet another night of the MLS Is Back Tournament action has come and gone. This time, it was Columbus Crew SC thrashing in-state rivals FC Cincinnati 4-0 in the two teams’ opening game of the tournament, the first fixture from MLS is Back which featured a team scoring more than two goals.
The match was quite cut and dry from start to finish, as the Black & Gold saw Lucas Zelarayan, Youness Mokhtar and Gyasi Zardes all on the scoresheet. After a world-class free kick from Zelarayan in the first half, the Crew never looked back after adding two tidy finishes from Zardes and a curling effort off the post and into the net from Mokhtar. Columbus now sits at the top of Group E with three points, level with the New York Red Bulls but ahead on goal differential (+4).
Here are Massive Report’s biggest takeaways from the first night of action for the Crew in Orlando, Florida.
Lucas Zelarayan is the real deal
It’s been three competitive games for the club-record signing from Tigres in Mexico, but Zelarayn looks every bit of a $7 million player and then some. His creativity, offensive prowess and explosiveness is exactly what the Black & Gold needed in their central attacking midfield position after the recent departure of Federico Higuain.
Zelarayan’s ability was evident wheen he scored what could end up being the goal of the tournament with his bending free kick to open his account for Columbus since the restart of the season. He previously scored the game-winner for the Black & Gold in a 1-0 victory during Week 1 against New York City FC. The midfielder added a pinpoint assist and completed 87 of his passes, his best percentage so far in central Ohio. Zelarayan’s 60 minutes played on Saturday was enough to earn him the Man of the Match award. Not a bad return through three games for the Argentinian playmaker.
This group plays well as a team
Saturday’s contest boasted three different goal scorers for the Crew for the first time since May 8, 2019 when Higuain, Zardes and Hector Jimenez all chipped in for a 3-1 victory against the LA Galaxy. Apart from Zelarayan’s stellar free kick, each of the other three goals were assisted by Mokhtar, Zelarayan and Jimenez respectively.
It was also the professional debut match for two of the clubs’ most notable youngsters in Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhalter, the latter of whom is the son of former Crew and current United States Men’s National Team manager Gregg Berhalter. In fact, the former Black & Gold head coach was in attendance to be able to witness his son’s debut. Both used as late subs, head coach Caleb Porter allowed the two Homegrown rookies to make cameos to help see the game through.
Defender Vito Wormgoor went down with an injury early in the game and was replaced by another Homegrown player in Aboubacar Keita. The club has yet to announce the severity of Wormgoor’s injury. However, Keita provided a spark on the backline alongside Jonathan Mensah. Playing 73 minutes, Keita was crucial in linking the ball into midfield with a 96.6 percent passing accuracy and winning a crucial aerial duel. He’ll surely be called upon more often if Wormgoor is forced to miss an extended period of time.
The Crew control its own destiny
After the resounding 4-0 victory to begin the tournament, the Black & Gold find themselves in first place in Group E. NYRB won the team’s first game as well against Atlanta United, winning 1-0 but now trail Columbus by three goals for the top spot.
If Columbus manages to avoid defeat in its remaining two games of the tournaments group stage, the team should very well see itself in the knockout stage sooner than most would have expected before the season resumed. The Black & Gold look all the more poised and dangerous to make a deep run at the MLS is Back Tournament.
Columbus sits in the driver seat after only one game, and although FC Cincinnati isn’t exactly a top-tier MLS opponent, Saturday’s match showed all the promise the Crew possesses. Porter said ahead of Saturday’s match that it was to be “pretty businesslike,” which shows the team’s approach to the tournament is already paying dividends. All they need to do is keep moving forward.