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What we learned about the Crew from the MLS is Back group stage

Three games in, what are our Black & Gold takeaways?

Columbus Crew SC v New York Red Bulls - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament is complete and knockout round games are set to begin. Columbus Crew SC essentially coasted through Group E, winning all three games against FC Cincinnati, the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United with relative ease, scoring seven goals and keeping three clean sheets in the process.

It’s certainly been a good start to the tournament for the Crew, but the knockout rounds are where games heat up. Before we turn our attention completely to the Black & Gold’s Round of 16 opponent, Minnesota United, Massive Report looked back at Columbus’ group performances to see what we learned about the Crew over the three games.

The Crew is deep

The biggest issue the team faced in Year 1 of the Caleb Porter era was a lack of depth. Injuries derailed what could have been another playoff-bound season with the likes of Federico Higuain, Milton Valenzuela, Harrison Afful and others missing extended time with injuries and others away on international duty. Porter and team president Tim Bezbatchenko vowed to address that issue and, over the last year, made a number of changes to the roster.

Those changes appear to have worked. Through the three games at MLS is Back, the Black & Gold have used three different lineups, making five or more changes between each contest. The analytics say that many changes often lead to issues in a game, but the Crew disproved that theory. Porter believes this is due to finding the right players that fit the profiles, so not much changes continuity-wise when players come in and out of the lineup.

Even with key players like Lucas Zelarayan, Vito Wormgoor, Eloy Room and Pedro Santos missing time, Columbus found ways to win games. This depth will be important going forward in the tournament, as well as in any potential MLS regular season following.

Lucas Zelarayan is a major difference-maker

Watching former Crew playmaker Federico Higuain score twice off the bench for D.C. United and demonstrate how he can still change a game was difficult for Black & Gold fans. But that was likely made easier by the play of Zelarayan, Columbus’ new No. 10. In his two starts in the MLS is Back Tournament, Zelarayan contributed two goals and two assists. When he came off the bench, against Atlanta, Zelarayan did all he could to help the team keep possession.

Zelarayan has shown through his first few games with the Crew that he was well worth the record-setting money the club spent on him. He is a dynamic playmaker who can not only help create chances but finish them as well, and do so from different positions on the field. He can operate as a true No. 10 in midfield or as a second forward, an ideal fit for what Porter wants from his team.

The Black & Gold defense is going to win this team games

Not every game is going to consist of free-flowing, attacking soccer for the Crew. There will be times going forward when the team has to defend and find ways to get results on the defensive side of the field. The Columbus defense was strong in the first two games but didn’t face much adversity. In the third game against United, the Black & Gold didn’t have the same offensive cohesion for long periods and the defense was under siege at the end of the contest.

Center back and captain Jonathan Mensah did a great job at organizing the backlines, no matter who was around him. After the injury to Vito Wormgoor, both Aboubacar Keith and Josh Williams played well alongside Jonathan and the fullbacks, be it Harrison Afful, Chris Cadden, Hector Jimenez or Milton Valenzuela, helped limit opponents’ opportunities.

This backline, along with the group in front of them, understands their defensive responsibilities and is going to make life difficult for opposing attacks going forward.

Artur and Darlington Nagbe are a fun central midfield pairing

When Artur arrived in Columbus in 2017, the Brazilian formed a nice partnership with Wil Trapp in the center of the park. It looked like this could be a Crew partnership for the foreseeable future, or as long as both players remained in MLS. But Artur’s trajectory did not stay on course and the midfielder seemed to regress a bit after a strong first season. Trapp was sent to Inter Miami this offseason, as Darlington Nagbe was acquired from Atlanta.

From preseason on, though, Artur and Nagbe have clicked. Nagbe continues to be one of the league’s best midfielders in possession, which has helped the Black & Gold in build-up. He has also brought out the best in Artur, who is playing more of the destroyer role, breaking up attacks before they get going.

Having a strong central midfield is crucial for Porter’s style of play and Artur and Nagbe, thus far, have proven to be exactly what the coach was looking for.

We haven’t seen enough yet to make a complete judgment

Let’s make one thing clear, as good as the Crew looked in the group stage, it was only three games. Plenty of teams have gone on three-game winning streaks and not ended up with a trophy at the end of the year, so let’s now crown Columbus just yet.

Also, it should be noted, that the three teams the Black & Gold faced in Group E may not be the strongest. FC Cincinnati, despite advancing out of the group, still isn’t a serious contender. The Red Bulls are in a clear rebuild with many of the names that made the team Supporters’ Shield contenders year after year no longer on the roster. Atlanta also lost a lot in the offseason and is still trying to replace those players. Plus United lost forward Josef Martinez for the season.

We will continue to learn more about the Crew as the tournament progresses, as long as the group keeps winning. And while it has been exciting to see Columbus play some very good soccer, it’s too early to know where the Black & Gold stands in the grand scheme of things.