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Lineup breakdown: Crew go strong in East battle against Toronto FC

Caleb Porter deploys most of his main guys to attempt to hold on to the top of the East.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC is set to play its third game in just over a week on Sunday night against Toronto FC. While technically an away game, Toronto will host the Crew at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut due to border restrictions in Canada. This is an important game for both teams, with five points separating the two clubs at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The importance of the game was not lost on Columbus head coach Caleb Porter who put out a strong lineup for this Trillum Cup battle against TFC. Porter made just two changes from the group that earned a 2-1 win, its fourth in the last five games, against Minnesota United on Wednesday at MAPFRE Stadium.

One of Porter’s changes to the starting lineup from the last game is a forced one with Homegrown rookie Sebastian Berhalter getting the start at central midfielder. First-choice starting center midfielder Darlington Nagbe misses his fourth straight game after suffering a knee injury that ended up requiring a scope procedure. Nagbe is expected to be out another week or so. Reserve midfielder Fatai Alashe started the last three games in place of Nagbe but suffered an injury of his own against Minnesota. This is Berhalter’s eighth appearance of the year and third start.

Alongside the rookie will be Artur in his normal place. Porter elected to stick with Pedro Santos and Luis Diaz on the wings after both players performed well against United. Lucas Zelarayan, who returned to the starting lineup on Wednesday, also remains in the starting lineup as the Crew’s primary playmaker, looking to connect with forward Gyasi Zardes yet again.

The backline is Porter’s first-choice group with captain Jonathan Mensah partnered by veteran Josh Williams at center back. Harrison Afful maintains his starting spots in the first 11, while Milton Valenzuela moves to the bench with Hector Jimenez getting his fourth start of the year at left back. Goalkeeper Eloy Room makes his 11th start and hopes to earn his eighth shutout of the season against Toronto.

With almost a full week before next Saturday’s trip to FC Dallas, Porter clearly felt it was better to play his top players despite short rest, knowing they will have time to recover before taking the field again later this week.

The bench consists of the usual suspects of goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, fullback Chris Cadden, center back Aboubacar Keita, wingers Derrick Etienne Jr., and Youness Mokhtar. Valenzuela starts as a reserve, while winger Emmanuel Boateng makes the bench for the first time in the last few games. Rookie Aidan Morris is thee backup at central midfield and Jordan Hamilton, despite not having played yet, is available via a substitute role.