Sunday, the Columbus Crew welcome Philadelphia Union to historic Crew Stadium. While the Union won a Supporters’ Shield last year, the team lost players that made it the top team in Major League Soccer the regular season. Defender Mark McKenzie and attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson were key players in the 2020 campaign and both now play outside of the United States.
Columbus has its own roster gaps to fill, but for a different reason. Injuries have already taken players away from the Crew. Some for short periods of time, like midfielder Darlington Nagbe and Marlon Hairston. Both returning from small knocks. Others for a little longer.
The Black & Gold’s biggest offseason acquisition, midfielder Kevin Molino from Minnesota United, is out six to eight weeks. Thursday saw Columbus lose another midfielder for upwards of a year as Aidan Morris tore his ACL and won’t see the field again in 2021.
It’s that environment in which Massive Report asked you, the supporters, who should start in this opening weekend match against Philadelphia. Here’s who you chose.
It’s not to say that choosing a starting is an easy job, but with the state of Columbus’ current healthy rostered players, there wasn’t a lot to choose from.
On defense, it makes sense that fullbacks Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela start the last MLS regular season opener in Historic Crew Stadium. Valenzuela is healthy and Afful played 45 minutes in Thursday’s CONCACAF Champions League victory. Afful is still gaining his conditioning, so a full 90 minutes isn’t likely. Veteran Waylon Francis, or maybe even new signing Saad Abdul-Salaam, are the likely candidates to come into the match in the second half.
At center back, it’s hard to argue against Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams. This duo led the Crew to the 2020 MLS Cup Final and both are available. Williams played close to a third of Thursday’s match, replacing Aboubacar Keita. Mensah did not play since he earned a yellow card in leg one and Columbus didn’t want to chance him missing the first game of the next round against Monterrey of Liga MX.
The midfield duo supporters selected was Artur and Perry Kitchen. Since Columbus ruled Nagbe out for Sunday and Morris is no longer available, Kitchen and Artur are obvious options. Artur played 45 minutes on Thursday while getting back to 100 percent after offseason surgery. Depending on how the match goes on the field, it’s unclear if Artur will play a full 90. Kitchen is healthy should play the full match. For depth at the position, the Crew has Homegrown youngster Isaiah Parente. He’s played well in his first two matches on the senior team, even playing the entire 90 minutes of the 1-0 victory against Real Esteli in Leg 2.
In the attacking midfield, two offensive weapons in Lucas Zelarayan and Pedro Santos will likely suit up. The only question in the attack is on the wing. Supporters chose Luis Diaz, which makes sense. He played in both legs of the Champions League and his competition at the position missed Thursday due to injury. Head coach Caleb Porter now has Derrick Etienne Jr. available for the match. Even if Diaz doesn’t start and Etienne gets the nod, Diaz coming into the match as a second half substitute, when legs are tired, is an advantage for Columbus.
Up front, forward Gyasi Zardes is the runaway favorite in the supporters’ selections. Every vote was for him to start, even with Bradley Wright-Phillips shining for the Black & Gold on Thursday. Wright-Phillips as a backup to Zardes will only improve his play with pressure behind that he hasn’t had in his time with Columbus.
Here is Massive Report’s pick to start. Pay close attention to the difference.
There isn’t any difference. The Crew has limited depth right now, due to injuries. With that said, supporters had 10 players to choose from that played meaningful minutes in 2020, a year that ended with an MLS Cup victory. The Black & Gold are a strong team, and as players return, they’ll only get stronger.