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What We Learned: Crew vs. Chicago Fire

Our biggest takeaways from a win against an old rival

Ralph Schudel

After nearly five months, a global pandemic and the MLS is Back Tournament, Columbus Crew SC finally returned to MAPFRE Stadium and beat longtime rival Chicago Fire 3-0 on Thursday night. With several notable names out of the lineup, the Crew relied on talented squad depth and some stout defense to extinguish a slow-starting Chicago team.

Derrick Etienne Jr. finished a Milton Valenzuela cross in the 20th minute to start the scoring. Late in the second half, Darlington Nagbe had a highlight-reel goal from outside the box and set up a Pedro Santos to Gyasi Zardes connection to finish off the Fire. Backup goalkeeper, Andrew Tarbell, with the help of a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort in front of him kept a clean sheet and the Crew took another three points in an already hot start.

Here is what we learned from the team’s MLS-best fifth win of the season

This defense is good

Sometimes the term “bend-but-don’t-break” does not sound like a compliment when describing a defensive effort but sometimes that is what is called for to win a game. With two of the back four heavily involving themselves in the attack, and with Nagbe moving forward throughout the game, Chicago was able to get into the Crew’s defensive area relatively often. But once the team approached the final third, Milton Valenzuela, Harrison Afful, and Nagbe had tracked back to prevent quality chances.

Crew captain Jonathan Mensah looks very comfortable in the lead center back role, both as a stopper and as the first line of distribution in the attack. The loss of offseason signing Vito Wormgoor to injury has not proven to slow down this defense either. In his place, Josh Williams stepped up and was a more than capable replacement. The second center back position will have quite a bit of rotation, but both Williams and Aboubacar Ketia have been strong so far.

In the first six league games (five wins and a draw), the Crew has conceded one goal. Impressive under any circumstances, but even more so when you consider that in those games, the Black & Gold had to endure injuries in every defensive position.

It’s not just the back four that are keeping the score sheet tidy. Pedro Santos has been his usual strong defensive self, even having to play a little more forward with Lucas Zelarayan out. Forward Gyasi Zardes was more active in the middle of the pitch and stayed in the action even when not on the attack. Obviously the back two midfielders served as support and helped slow the attack as well. Artur and Nagbe were all over the pitch, helping keep the ball in the attacking zone longer (preventing more chances).

On a night where probably the biggest name playmaker was out (Zelarayan), offensive chances were not a guarantee. Going forward, if the Crew can maintain this kind of defensive stoutness, Columbus can better navigate potential future offensive droughts.

Tarbell is a more than suitable backup

Starting Crew goalkeeper, Eloy Room has now missed three games with an injury. And while things are starting to look up from all reports, the Crew has been able to survive what could have been dicey waters with the help of Andrew Tarbell. Coming off a less-than-stellar season with the San Jose Earthquakes, there were lots of question marks around the backup goalkeeper. But in his two starts, Tarbell has shown at least competence, if not full-on strong efforts.

It took a poorly-cleared set piece and a penalty kick shootout to get anything past Tarbell this season. While he hasn’t been brilliant, he makes the safe choice and has been serviceable. All of this might sound like back-handed compliments, but as a backup goalkeeper, Tarbell has been great. A clean sheet against the Fire, and withstanding some heavy pressure in the knockout round stage against Minnesota United, Tarbell is minding the shop well and keeping the Crew in games until Room returns. The back four did a great job of keeping the quality chances to a minimum, but when called upon, Tarbell answered.

Nagbe is an early contender for team MVP

While Nagbe’s signing in the offseason was potentially overshadowed by the big-dollar contracts of internationals Lucas Zelarayan and Vito Wormgoor, the talented and experienced midfielder has stood out for the Crew this season. The biggest story from the game was the incredible goal Nagbe scored in the 82nd minute, with good cause. It is the kind of highlight play that will blow up MLS social media for the foreseeable future.

While Nagbe has not historically been much of a goal scorer, he has been heavily involved in almost every one of the Black & Gold’s goals this season. With a team-high 95 percent pass accuracy, his single assist on the stat line is a little deceiving. The third goal of last night’s game is a perfect example. Santos earned the assist, feeding a wonderful ball to Zardes, who finished it strongly, but Nagbe held possession the extra second or two to allow that play to develop before distributing to the winger. It is the kind of high soccer IQ that makes him invaluable to this team. The bonkers trick-shot goal is understandably the stand-out moment of this game for Nagbe, but it’s the little things that will continue to help the Crew succeed.

Milton Valenzuela is back

The fullbacks are a huge part of the attack in most modern soccer strategy, and Caleb Porter’s system is no different. When Valenzuela made his debut with Columbus in 2018, he quickly stood out as a bright spot and ideally the strong starting left back this team needed. Since then, injuries have been a concern. The Argentine missed all of 2019 and a couple of games this year and he was missed each time.

Against the Fire, Valenzuela showed what he can bring to this team. Strong defensive effort, tracking back and forcing plays outside (while limiting quality chances for Chicago) and smart offensive movement made him a real threat. His assist to Etienne started the scoring, While it’s a limited sample size, Valenzuela looks like he’s returning to 2018 form.

The real deal?

Speaking of small sample size, with just six league games played, the Crew has looked strong. The Black & Gold currently sit atop the Eastern Conference, as well as lead the Supporters’ Shield standings by four points. Even with a long layoff, injury issues to some of the biggest names on the roster, the Crew has shown well consistency.

As the season hopefully starts back up and stays back up, this team could definitely make some noise in this league. Columbus has a relatively easy September schedule ahead with two matches against FC Cincinnati, one against underachieving New York City FC and a rematch with Chicago. That should give the Crew a chance to rack up a solid point total. A Sept. 2 match against the Philadelphia Union will serve as a good measuring stick against quality opposition. By the time we reach October, and hopefully enter Phase 2 of play, we should have a really good idea of what this Black & Gold team is capable of. And there are plenty of signs of optimism.