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The Crew adjust without key pieces in Zelarayan, Nagbe

Columbus found a way to get a result with two offensive cogs missing.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When the Columbus Crew SC starting lineup came out on Saturday afternoon, Black & Gold fans had to be a bit concerned. In a trip to face the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field, the Crew was without playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and midfielder Darlington Nagbe in the starting lineup or on the bench.

Zelarayan wasn’t as big of a surprise, having missed the previous game and two contests in late August with an ankle injury suffered at the MLS is Back Tournament. Nagbe, who was yet to miss a game since joining Columbus this offseason, not being available was certainly a shock. The two players have been key pieces for the Black & Gold attack this year, combining for four goals and three assists in 2020.

As it turned out, Zelarayan’s ankle wasn’t the issue this week, and both he and Nagbe suffered “knee knocks” last week in the 1-0 win against the Philadelphia Union.

“When I use the term ‘knock,’ it’s a general statement of the area that’s injured,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the game against the Fire on Saturday. “They are minor. They are from knocks, tackles. We don’t expect they’ll be out long.”

According to Porter, Zelarayan is dealing with a “light MCL Grade 1,” which typically keeps players out for one to two weeks. Nagbe apparently banged knees with an opponent against the Union and, despite taking Zelarayan’s No. 10 spot in the subsequent game against FC Cincinnati, saw his knee swell up over the past week.

“It’s been sore and he kind of started feeling it at the end of the week a little bit more,” Porter said of Nagbe. “The swelling wasn’t going away. Again, we don’t think it’s serious but neither one was available.”

With two important cogs to the Crew’s build-up play out, the Black & Gold looked shaky early. Columbus gave up two goals in the opening 14 minutes of the match, the first time the Crew conceded two goals in a game this season, and looked overall disjointed to begin the game. Without two of the more important offensive players in Zelarayan and Nagbe, that wasn’t a surprise.

Adding to the lack of cohesion in the starting lineup, especially early, the Black & Gold didn’t prepare to start the way the team did. Both Nagbe and Zelarayan were in the starting lineup plans at points throughout the week but, when it came to traveling to Chicago on Friday, neither was healthy enough.

“There wasn’t a lot of rhythm in our prep this week,” Porter said, “because we basically prepped one day and Darlington was out and then we prepped another day and then Lucas was out. So we actually didn’t prep with the lineup we started because it was pretty much a change we had to make the day before.”

Despite the slow start and the lack of top offensive options, the Crew was able to battle back from the early two-goal deficit and earned a 2-2 draw on the road against the Fire. The top team in Major League Soccer got an improved second half performance as the offense clicked into gear without Zelarayan and Nagbe pulling the strings.

Pedro Santos found Gyasi Zardes on a corner kick and the forward’s headed effort deflected off midfielder Fatai Alashe, who was in for Nagbe, and into the net to cut the deficit in half. In the final minute of regulation, after goalkeeper Eloy Room made a couple of big saves, the Crew found the equalizer courtesy of Zardes being in the right spot and finishing with composure.

“Perhaps to start the game, that rhythm, that continuity might have been lost because we didn’t have a full week with the group we started,” Porter said. “But I think the guys really responded in that second half.”

The good news for the Crew is that neither Zelarayan nor Nagbe are expected to be out long term. Even better, the Black & Gold proved, despite the rough opening minutes, that they can still get results in games without some of their top players.