Columbus Crew SC prepares for the final game of the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament against Atlanta United, coming off two impressive performances against FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls. In both games, Caleb Porter made use of rotation and utilized the depth of his squad. While this final matchup against a slumping Atlanta team does little to impact the Crew’s placement in the tournament, it does count for three regular season points.
With the Black & Gold atop the Eastern Conference, and little known about what the rest of the “regular season” will look like, those three points might be extremely valuable. Regardless, there are several thoughts on how the Crew might line up.
- Treat this as a glorified preseason match and fill the XI with “the kids.”
- Go full steam ahead and send out a starting XI set on domination and taking all three points.
In reality, the truth will probably lie somewhere in between. This has been by far the most contentious Supporters’ XI vote of the season, which probably reflects a wide-range of thoughts. Let’s check out the official Supporters’ XI:
From the back, goalkeeper Eloy Room had the most competition in the vote for this match. He beats out 35 percent of the vote for Matt Lampson after appearing to suffer an injury late against New York. At center back, Aboubacar Keita was the overwhelming first choice, with Jonathan Mensah edging out Josh Williams by 10 percent of the vote. At fullback, Harrison Affull and Milton Valenzuela were the most conclusive choice of the entire vote. Neither Chris Cadden, Waylan Francis nor Hector Jimenez got over 30 percent of the vote.
In the midfield, things got weird. It looks like the supporters went with an offensive-heavy midfield with Youness Mohktar, Luis Diaz, Lucas Zelarayan and Pedro Santos getting the majority votes. While the four offensive midfielders split votes amongst themselves and several other options, central midfielder Artur was the overwhelming lock at 83 percent of the vote. Admittedly, Porter has several options in several configurations in the midfield to play with, including giving some of the younger players some time while anchoring them with some experience.
Up front, while Fanendo Adi and/or the idea of rotation did garner a respectable 35 percent of the vote, Gyasi Zardes was still the overwhelming favorite to start. The striker has been on somewhat of a tear (four goals in the first four games; the first to do that for the Crew since Brian McBride), it would be nice to see him continue momentum going into the knockout round.
Initially, I foresaw Porter going with a fully youthful lineup in this game. This would be a great opportunity to give young players some more experience, and with their position in the group all but locked in, why risk injury? Under more consideration, I thought about those three regular season points up for grabs. The Crew sits atop the Eastern Conference with 10 points, and is tied with Minnesota United for the Supporters’ Shield race.
Whatever regular season MLS does have coming out of the tournament will almost assuredly be shortened. Grabbing the full three points might make a huge difference in what could become a tight race. Ultimately, Porter may opt for more rotation later in the the actual tournament (which has no regular season repercussions).
The best way to describe the predicted XI is rotation anchored by experience. Room has not had a ton of work to do in the first two games, but has stepped up when the shots have come. Expect Porter to keep his first keeper in tonight as a security valve in the defense, assuming he is healthy
In the back four, Jonathan Mensah is likely to get some rest with Axel Sjoberg getting the start. With Vito Wormgoor out indefinitely, the second center back is still uncertain. Giving Keita some more time will give Porter more game footage to better inform his decision. While Jimenez has been outstanding thus far in the tournament, getting some rest is important and Chris Cadden and Harrison Afful can start in the fullback position.
Darlington Nagbe left the game against the Red Bulls with a little ding. Recently, he has disclosed it was just some cramping and nothing major. Nagbe has been invaluable in the first two games, but he has a lot of game time on his legs and Porter will not want to rush him back just yet. Either of the two young midfielders coould partner with Artur, but ultimately the nod went to Aidan Morris as he is yet to start a game. We have not seen much of the kid this tournament, and the Crew staff would like to see more of Morris.
Santos and Mohktar have been key in creating the scoring early in the group stage, look for them to set up Zardes or Zelarayan early, putting the game out of reach and allowing Porter to rotate sooner rather than later.
However the Crew chose to lineup tonight, we should get some insight as to what Porter’s philosophy on the tournament and season might be. Thankfully, the Black & Gold’s rotation has been strong thus far, which allows for more flexibility.