Caleb Porter promised a rotation and rotation is what he delivered. The Columbus Crew head coach elected to make a remarkable eight changes to his lineup for Thursday night’s second leg Round of 16 CONCACAF Champions League game against Real Esteli.
Porter did this for a couple of reasons. The first being, that the Crew holds a 4-0 aggregate series lead over Esteli after the win a week ago in Nicaragua. The second is that the defending MLS Cup champions play the team’s regular season opener on Sunday against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, the Philadelphia Union, and would like to have a fresh team heading into that match. Additionally, some of these changes were either forced by injury or done out of caution due to picking up a yellow card in the first match and not wanting to get a second in this game, which would lead to a suspension in the first leg of the quarterfinals.
While there are many changes to the line, the goalkeeper remains the same. Eloy Room, Columbus’ No. 1 when healthy, gets his second straight start in 2021, wearing the captain’s armband, and looks for his second consecutive shutout.
In front of Room is a whole new backline from the first leg. Regular starter Harrison Afful returns at right back after missing the first game. He is joined by center back Aboubacar Keita, who was also out for the first leg as well, and Waylon Francs at left back. The surprise of the group is Perry Kitchen at center back. Normally a holding midfielder, Porter is trusting a player he coached in college to handle the duties of leading the backline.
Interestingly however, Matt Lampson, not Evan Bush, is the backup to Room.
Normal center back and captain Jonathan Mensah was one of those who picked up a yellow card — albeit questionable — in the first leg, so him not starting for the first time since August of 2019 is not shocking. He is not on the bench either. Jonathan’s partner in crime most of last year, Josh Williams, is rested from the start but on the bench, as is Grant Lilliard who is yet to appear in a game for the Black & Gold since being acquired midseason last year. Left back Milton Valenzuela is also available if needed.
The central midfield doesn’t provide too many surprises in this game. Second-year Homegrown player Aidan Morris started in the last game but young legs mean he can play multiple matches if needed against the Union. There is also the hope that Darlington Nagbe will return from a hamstring issue for Sunday. Artur, who came back from offseason surgery to come off the bench last week against Esteli, continues to build fitness and gets the start.
The attacking midfield trio does provide some intrigue. Winger Luis Diaz is one of the holdover starters from the first game, but rookie Homegrown product Isaiah Parente gets the start as well at the attacking midfield spot. Forward Miguel Berry makes his debut and will get the start on the left wing, which is certainly different.
Normal playmaker Lucas Zelarayan is on the bench, but may only come on if necessary with an eye to Sunday. Winger Pedro Santos is also available.
Up top, veteran forward Bradley Wright-Phillips gets the start after making his Crew debut last week as a substitute. The former New York Red Bulls and LAFC striker will be looking to open his goal scoring account in Columbus against Real. Normal starter Gyasi Zardes is on the bench if needed.
All in all, the Black & Gold are starting three Homegrown products, while one player — Berry — makes his first debut and three others — Wright-Phillips, Parente and Kitchen — make their first start for the Crew.