The Columbus Crew came into Thursday’s second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 second leg confident. Being up 4-0, on aggregate, allows that sort of thing. Prior to the home match against Real Esteli, head coach Caleb Porter shared that Columbus planned on rotating the lineup so the Crew could rest for Sunday’s Major League Soccer regular season opener against 2020 Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union. He did just that in the Black & Gold’s 1-0 victory to move on to the quarterfinal
Despite the changes, there was plenty to learn about the Crew from the win against Esteli.
The Importance of Depth
Homegrown midfielder Aidan Morris attempted a tackle and instead landed awkwardly on his leg. Morris spent time on the sideline with medical staff before they took him to the locker room for further assessment. Morris returned to the field, watching the second half in a brace and on crutches. Morris will have an MRI Monday, but the prognosis is already tough from Porter when he said that “it looks pretty bad.”
In response, the Crew’s depth had to dig deeper. Midfield veteran Perry Kitchen, who started as a center back alongside Aboubacar Keita, moved back to his natural position in central midfield. Grant Lillard, who Columbus acquired in 2020, made his Crew debut as a 9th minute substitute. Although it was the first time Keita and Lillard paired together in a match, they showed why the defense is a strength for the Black & Gold. The Crew hasn’t given up a goal since Nov. 21. That’s five, non-preseason, matches without a goal conceded.
Kitchen’s addition to the team now looks more important than ever. The defensive midfielder brings strength to the position. And with Morris potentially out for a long period of time, Kitchen moves up to third on the depth chart behind Darlington Nagbe and Artur.
There was positive injury news too
Morris’ injury brought a shadow over the festivities of moving onto the next round of the Champions League, but the match did have positive injury news.
Starting fullback Harrison Afful and midfielder Artur both played 45 minutes of competitive soccer. With absences from both Afful and Marlon Hairston, Porter deployed midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr. in the role. Thursday night, Afful played the first half, sending in a couple of dangerous crosses into Esteli’s penalty area. Although he didn’t assist on any goals, playing half a match after no minutes last week gives supporters hope that he makes a healthy start to the MLS season.
Artur played alongside Morris and Kitchen in the first half. The Brazilian looked like his usual self, disrupting play and finding outlets throughout the midfield. In the second half, Lucas Zelarayan and Milton Valenzuela replaced Artur and Afful, respectively.
New offensive talent
Part of Porter’s squad rotation meant giving forward Gyasi Zardes an early-season night off. For the first time in a couple of seasons, Columbus has a starting-caliber forward to step in for just these types of nights. MLS goal-scoring legend Bradley Wright-Phillips started his first match in Columbus’ black and gold.
While Wright-Phillips is seventh on the MLS all-time goalscorers list (116 league goals in 213 matches), the forward brings more to the field than just goal scoring. On Thursday night, he didn’t sit up front and wait for the play to come his way but was part of the buildup. Wright-Phillips’ play mirrored that of Zardes at times, where movement off the ball is just as important as being in the right places for scoring goals. Wright-Phillips broke up plays and was an active participant in defense on Esteli’s free kick and corner kick opportunities.
He also scored too, burying an 86th minute pass from Zelaryan to give the Crew the win.
Joining Wright-Phillips in the attack were two new names, Isaiah Parente and Miguel Berry. Parente came in as a substitute in last week’s 4-0 win, but Thursday was his first start in Columbus. The midfielder played the No. 10 for the first half against Esteli. With only a few months playing on the senior team, he had moments that showed why he’s starting. Outside of a few errant passes, which were not all his fault, he moved the team forward effectively.
Berry, who normally plays as a forward, started on the left wing. In 2020, the Black & Gold sent him to San Diego Loyal FC on loan, before the Phase 1 restart. He scored three goals and assisted on two in seven matches out west. On Thursday, he didn’t look dangerous in terms of sending in crosses or attacking the 18-yard box but brought a strong physical presence into the attack. When Real intercepted passing and stopped the Crew attack, Berry quickly moved into defensive mode, winning back possession on multiple occasions.
Communication Takes Time
The combination of Esteli’s possession-style play and a Crew side that did not have experience playing together made for a match that did not deliver much excitement. On multiple occasions, Columbus’ passes didn’t reach the intended target. Players anticipated where their teammates were moving incorrectly, causing noticeable frustration on the field.
Thursday’s primary goal of holding the four-goal lead didn’t require perfect timing or flashy passing and goal scoring. The Black & Gold defense held strong and players that will be key in competing across multiple competitions in 2021 received competitive minutes.