There was excitement. There was huppah. There were former players presenting a trophy. Then there was a soccer game to be played.
The Columbus Crew opened its 2021 Major League Soccer season on Sunday evening, officially putting the championship-winning year of 2020 behind the team. Unfortunately, the Black & Gold were not able to recreate the magic of the last MLS game at historic Crew Stadium when Columbus captured that second ever MLS Cup, managing only a 0-0 draw with the Philadelphia Union.
While the roughly 5,000 fans in attendance would have liked to see their team score a few goals and bring home all three points, the first MLS game of the 2021 season taught us plenty about this new Crew team. Let’s take a look at what we learned.
The defense remains the strength of the team
They say defense wins championships and that was the case for the Black & Gold in 2021. Columbus allowed just 21 goals in 23 games a year ago, the second-best mark in the league. That has carried over to this season.
The Crew once again controlled things along the backline. Center backs Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams made tackles and clearances throughout the night to limit Philadelphia’s chances. When the Union was able to get a look at goal, it was either a contested effort that went wide or goalkeeper Eloy Room was there to deny, making five saves in the game.
Like a year ago, it was a full team effort, with the Black & Gold pressuring up the field in order to prevent Philadelphia to build up the way the visitors would like. While Gyasi Zardes wasn’t able to find the back of the net, he did continue to lead the defensive effort when his team did not have the ball.
Last season, Columbus’ defensive efforts had to carry the team to results at times and that was the case in the opening game of this season.
Lucas Zelarayan is a marked man
A year ago, the Crew’s new No. 10 was a relatively unknown product in MLS after coming over for a team record fee from Liga MX. It didn’t take long for Zelarayan to announce himself to MLS, but the league really took notice after he received the MLS Cup Most Valuable Player trophy following a two-goal, one-assist performance in the final.
Philadelphia made sure that Zelarayan did not do to them what he did to the Seattle Sounders in December. The Union kept a man on Zelarayan any time the Black & Gold were in possession and sometimes even when they weren’t. The Argentine found a bit of freedom by floating wide, but he is much less dangerous from those areas than running at goal from the middle of the field.
While this is just the first game of the season, expect other teams to keep a closer watch on the 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year this campaign to try and limit the dangers of the Columbus attack. It will be up to Zelarayan, his teammates and the coaching staff to free the playmaker — which will be eased by the return of midfielder Darlington Nagbe from injury — and allow him to create for the Crew in these instances.
Perry Kitchen was an important offseason signing
The signing of veteran midfielder Kitchen in late January went a bit under the radar after the Black & Gold made headlines by adding MLS free agents in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino this offseason. But Kitchen is going to be an important part of this Columbus roster in 2021.
Obviously, the loss of second-year midfielder Aidan Morris, who is out for the year after tearing his ACL, increases the role of Kitchen for the Crew, but even if Morris was healthy, it’s likely Kitchen plays a part. We’ve already seen the midfielder slot in as a center back in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 game before Morris was injured, showing his versatility. On Sunday, he proved his ability as a holding midfielder under head coach Caleb Porter as well.
Unlike the Crew’s other central midfielders, Kitchen brings bite and feistiness to the center of the park. He got under Union players’ skins with his physical play and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind when Philadelphia committed fouls on his new teammates. Kitchen, despite only being on the roster for three months, was also vocal throughout the match, organizing those around him well and having conversations with those on the pitch throughout the contest.
While fans will want to see as much of Artur and Nagbe as possible throughout the year, there will be times when the team needs to rotate its midfield duo. Having Kitchen will be helpful in those instances and beyond.
This team is only going to get better
Unfortunately, the Crew didn’t start the MLS season fully healthy. As mentioned, both Nagbe and Morris were out for this game and Molino was on the injury list as well. Add in right back Marlon Hairston and goalkeeper Evan Bush as players who were out and Vito Wormgoor as one who was questionable but didn’t dress for the game and that’s a lengthy injury list.
Other than Morris and Molino, who will both be out for a while, most of these players will get back soon. Nagbe has already played one match this year in the Champions League and showed his quality in that game. Wormgoor will only give Porter more options at center back when he’s fully fit. When Molino does return — he was ruled out for six to eight weeks — that is another dangerous attacking weapon for the Black & Gold.
While Porter admitted that his team was disappointed to open the season with a draw at home, Columbus did play last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners and a team that is expected to be near the top of MLS again this season. At full strength, the Crew just may find a way to win that game, but missing some important pieces, the Black & Gold still found a way to get a result.