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What We Learned: Crew vs. Red Bulls

Our top takeaways as the Black & Gold punch their ticket to the MLS is Back knockout round.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

As Friday night came and went, another group of the MLS is Back Tournament began to take shape. Group E featuring Columbus Crew SC clinched the top spot after defeating Eastern Conference rival New York Red Bulls 2-0 to double the team’s point total and book a spot in the tournament’s knockout round. The Black & Gold became the third team to clinch a spot in the next round after Orlando City SC and the Philadelphia Union.

It was the second win in as many games for the Crew in MLS is Back, looking like the class of both the group and the tournament as a whole. One goal from striker Gyasi Zardes and another from midfielder Lucas Zelarayan proved to be enough to seal the victory.

Let’s take a look at Massive Report’s top takeaways from the matchup as the Crew continues to take care of business.

This Crew is the real deal

Four games, three wins and one draw. The Black & Gold continue their unbeaten streak in 2020 heading into the final matchup of the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament. With the first three games counting towards regular season point totals, the Crew finds itself on top of the Eastern Conference even looking beyond the tournament.

Needless to say, it has been a flying start for a team that was so up and down, with many question marks surrounding the group, only a season ago. Though a similar start is concurrent with last season, it’s hard to disagree that the overall atmosphere feels much different.

Through two tournament games, the Crew looks a dangerous contender for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. The three-player tandem of Darlington Nagbe, Zelarayan and Zardes has taken the Black & Gold to new heights to begin the season. Just how high they may be able to take the team is what everyone is eagerly awaiting to find out.

Squad rotation will become increasingly important

In the closing stages of Friday’s game, Crew fans may have seen deja vu all over again as injury after injury began to stockpile. Midway through the second half, Nagbe looked hampered by a muscle strain and had to be substituted. In the closing stages, goalkeeper Eloy Room and defender Jonathan Mensah were also dealing with some kind of ailments themselves that nearly compromised the backline down the stretch. Both were forced to see out the game because of no more allowed substitutes at the time.

Columbus already lost center back Vito Wormgoor against FC Cincinnati, who underwent ankle surgery and will miss the next four to six months. While Wormgoor’s injury was a mere pinch of bad luck, anyone is susceptible to something similar given the circumstances.

Games are coming thick and fast and with the heat and humidity of Central Florida being less than ideal for soccer, it will push the team’s depth to the limit. It will be interesting to see, as the games go on longer and the competition gets tougher, just how long the Black & Gold can maintain their momentum.

Caleb Porter’s vision has come to life

The one variable that was on head coach Caleb Porter’s side from the first day he took over the Black & Gold was time. He himself assured fans that it will take time to take the Crew back to the promise land. However, that time may have come much sooner than a lot had hoped or expected. It’s evident through watching this team play that, on their day, they have the potential to go step-for-step with any side MLS has to offer.

The midfield dominance of Nagbe, along with the playmaking of Zelarayan and the confidence of Zardes in front of goal emulate a similar feel that the 2015 MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers did under the current Black & Gold boss. Playmaking midfielder Diego Valeri and forward Fanendo Adi did similarly by linking up with Nagbe on a championship-winning side, both of whom have played their best ball under Porter.

Of course, forcing the club’s hand and trading club legend and longtime Homegrown captain Wil Trapp to Inter Miami wasn’t ideal on paper. However, it freed Porter to allow Nagbe to become the glue in midfield that he’s shown time and again to be when the player-coach duo link up. The two are seemingly a match made in heaven.

If any questions were still being asked about Porter in the offseason in regards to last season (the team’s lack of depth, playmaking and ability to finish games off), he’s done more than enough to put those to rest after the start of the team this season. The creativeness, depth and overall balance that the Crew has showcase should have fans excited for the remainder of the season and possibly beyond.