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Crew lineup breakdown: No Nagbe, Zelarayan off the bench against Nashville SC

The Black & Gold are once again without their key midfielders from the start.

Columbus Crew SC v FC Cincinnati Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Columbus Crew SC faces Nashville SC on Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, the first meeting between the two clubs in Major League Soccer history. The Crew sits in first place in the Eastern Conference and in the Supporters’ Shield race on 24 points, while Nashville sits back in ninth place in the East with 12 points.

If the Crew is going to get its first win against the Tennessee visitors, the Black & Gold will do it shorthanded. Columbus released the lineup about an hour prior to kick off and the Crew will not have playmaker Lucas Zelarayan from the start of the game and midfielder Darlington Nagbe at all.

Zelarayan, who missed the last two games with a Grade 1 MCL issue, is not fit enough to start but is fit enough to make the bench. Head coach Caleb Porter said this week that Zelarayan was still experiencing pain when shooting, so it stands to reason that Columbus is being careful with the team’s record signing. Having Zelarayan available at all, however, is a sign that the Argentinian No. 10 is getting back to full health and, if the Crew needs him, can make an appearance in this match.

Nagbe’s absence is more alarming. The midfielder missed his first game since joining the Black & Gold this offseason in the 2-2 draw with the Chicago Fire last weekend. He too has a knee issue after knocking knees with an opponent in the 1-0 win against the Philadelphia Union on Aug. 2. Porter said Nagbe was experiencing soreness and swelling this week and sources tell Massive Report the midfielder had his knee scoped this week and could potentially miss all three games scheduled thus far in Phase Two of the MLS restart.

With Zelarayan on the bench and Nagbe out, the Crew again turns to Pedro Santos in the No. 10 role and Fatai Alashe at central midfield to partner Artur. Santos has been serviceable playing centrally, a role he played nearly all of last season, and Alashe has done well since coming over from FC Cincinnati in a mid-summer trade.

On the wings, Youness Mokhtar returns to the starting lineup after coming off the bench against Chicago and Luis Diaz gets his second straight start on the right side. Both players will look to improve their starting form, which has been inconsistent this year.

The only other change to the lineup that came back from two goals down against the Fire is the insertion of second-year professional Aboubacar Keita into the starting 11 at center back in place of Josh Williams. Keita’s last start came on Aug. 24 when the young defender made a crucial mistake to allow New York City FC to score the only goal of the match. That remains the Crew’s only loss in the 2020 regular season and was Keita’s most recent appearance until Saturday night.

On the Black & Gold’s bench, the Crew has three fullback, likely due to numbers, in Hector Jimenez, birthday boy Chris Cadden and Waylon Francis. Grant Lillard, who came over in a trade in the summer, is the lone center back option with Williams getting the night off. This is his first appearance in a Columbus game-day roster. Rookie Sebastian Berhalter is the team’s only true central midfield option, along with Zelarayan. Derrick Etienne Jr. provides the team’s wing option while forward Jordan Hamilton is back on the bench after a lengthy spell off, due to Fanendo Adi not being “medically cleared to play.”

It will be interesting to see how Porter elects to use his bench against Nashville, with some different looks and more defensive options than attack.