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Crew will benefit from return of key players despite depth’s recent success

The Black & Gold’s offense is much more potent with all its pieces available.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Through seven games played in a strange 2020 Major League Soccer season that has no official end date, Columbus Crew SC sits at the top of the standings with 16 points and five wins. While the Crew managed to go six games unbeaten to start the year, it didn’t come easy.

Head coach Caleb Porter has had to adjust his lineup frequently, not just due to tight windows of the MLS is Back Tournament or Phase 1 of the league’s return to play, but also because of a number of injuries. While in Orlando, the Black & Gold lost starting center back Vito Wormgoor to an ankle injury, first-choice goalkeeper Eloy Room to a hamstring issue and winger Youness Mokhtar to a leg injury.

In addition, playmaker and record offseason signing, Lucas Zelarayan, battled an ankle issue at MLS is Back that, as Porter put it, only allowed him to play at 80 percent.

Despite these injury issues in key positions, Columbus remains in pole position for the Supporters’ Shield, thanks in large part to the team’s depth.

“When we had, kind of, all of the spokes in the wheel, that wheel was rolling pretty good, pretty smooth,” Porter reflected this week. “I really credit the guys that have stepped in during that time because we haven’t had to talk about it. We have a good group and we have depth and we were able to get results even though we had a lot of key guys out.”

While Wormgoor is done for the year, Zelarayan, Mokhtar and Room were out for the first two games of the restart but are nearing their expected return dates.

Over that time, the Black & Gold defeated the Chicago Fire 3-0 and lost at New York City FC 1-0. In both games, the Columbus offense, even with the three goals scored, was not as explosive and diverse as early in the season. Porter started winger Pedro Santos in Zelarayan’s No. 10 role and Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr., both fast players that look to get in behind the opposing defense, on the wings.

According to Porter, that made the Black & Gold easier to defend than earlier in the year when all of the pieces were available for selection.

“The last couple of games we were a little bit, I would say, without some options in terms of how we could shape up, what the plan could be,” Porter said, “and I prefer to, especially on the wings, be able to pick the certain profile for the game. And we had to pretty much shape up in more of a pressing and counter-attacking type of lineup with the personnel we had.

“And it got us the result against Chicago and it nearly got us the result in New York. But now I think moving forward, we have some more options and we’ll be able to do some different things in different ways, which will make us more unpredictable. It will give us different solutions.”

This is good news for Crew fans who watched the team get shutout on Monday against NYCFC for the first time in 2020. The return of Zelarayan, in particular, will be an important addition for the offense. The Black & Gold’s No. 10 has three goals and two assists in five games played and, along with Mokhtar, gives the team more of an attacking bite.

“When he’s on the field we have an advantage because he’s a very creative offensive player, who gives the team a lot of options and has the ability to score a goal or to create a chance out of nothing,” left back Milton Valenzuela said of Zelarayan. “It will be great to have him back on the field and hopefully we can take advantage of his presence.”

While the target return date for Zelarayan has been Saturday’s Hell is Real Derby against FC Cincinnati, Porter was not ready to say for certain the Argentinean would play this weekend. In fact, Zelarayan, Mokhtar and Room all remain questionable to some degree as they look to regain their fitness following the injuries.

“Specifically Lucas, Youness, Eloy, they’re in the early stages,” Porter said. “They’ve just trained a couple of days. We’ll have to evaluate which game they’re going to be able to play and how many minutes they’re going to be able to play. So I don’t have an answer on whether or not they’ll play this game or how many minutes if they did play. But they were only in training for a couple of days.”