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Supporters’ XI: Real Esteli

Make your picks on who starts the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League

MLS: Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew SC Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of the Columbus Crew’s first competitive match of 2021, there were nerves. Mainly around preseason scoreboards not in Columbus’ favor and injuries around the lineup. Thursday’s 4-0 victory against Real Esteli in the first leg of the Round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League put a lot of those nerves to bed, only to be replaced with new ones.

After Columbus was up 4-0 at halftime, Esteli’s style of play became more aggressive. In the second half, midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Derrick Etienne Jr., who played right back, left the match due to injuries sustained in the run of play.

This Thursday, the Nicaraguan side comes to historic Crew Stadium, looking to overturn the large deficit in leg 2. On the other side, Columbus has a lead to defend and the team’s first Major League Soccer league match of 2021 three days later against the Philadelphia Union.

The Crew shouldn’t have any problem adjusting to a short turn — see the entire 2020 season for examples — but how the Black & Gold handle this game is up in the air. Do they start players normally used in substitute roles to rest for Sunday or protect the lead from any surprise comeback? Head coach Caleb Porter said he planned to rotate players for this match regardless, but how does that look with injury news reported Monday?

Now we want you, the Crew supporter, to answer those questions in the next Supporters’ XI.

When Columbus announced the starting 11 last Thursday, the big news was winger Kevin Molino and fullbacks Harrison Afful and Marlon Hairston were available. Monday, the Crew announced that Molino will miss six to eight weeks and Hairston is doubtful this week with knee swelling.

Luckily for Columbus, the winger position is a source of depth and Luis Diaz, combined with Etienne on the right side, was a powerful combination. Unfortunately, Etienne too is doubtful for Thursday.

In the midfield, two new offseason signings made their Black & Gold debuts against Real. MLS veteran Perry Kitchen and Homegrown signee Isaiah Parente replaced Nagbe and Santos in the second half. Kitchen brings strength to the midfield and his experience can lead the group if Columbus chooses to rest Nagbe for Sunday.

Parente’s debut with the senior team showed his ability to play a stronger role moving forward. Porter is clear that he will put in the best players, regardless of age and Parent could receive his first professional start on Thursday.

Midfielder Alexandru Matan is in Columbus, but still not medically cleared to play. Porter is hopeful that he joins the team Saturday. A good piece of injury news was the return of Artur from offseason hernia surgery. The Brazilian played 30 minutes as a substitute.

Defensively, captain Jonathan Mensah played every minute of the 2020 season but did pick up a yellow card in Nicaragua. Another one in this match would seem him miss Leg 1 of the quarterfinal. Josh Williams got the start at center back and may be in line for two more. Aboubacar Keita isn’t medically cleared to play and Dutch center back Vito Wormgoor wasn’t in the game day roster last week after his ankle surgery a year ago.

Columbus has two options for fullback in Milton Valenzuela and Francis. Afful likely won’t start, but may receive substitute minutes to begin his on-field return to conditioning.

It’s a two-player decision up top. Zardes scored two goals in the first leg but Bradley Wright-Phillips is more than just a capable substitute. He’s a veteran striker that will push Zardes throughout the season. He also gives Zardes the occasional night off for the long run of matches in 2021.

Make your decisions on who starts and a contributor from Massive Report will share your lineup prior to Thursday’s kickoff.