The Columbus Crew showed quality in the midfield in 2020 on the way to the MLS Cup title. In 2021, it appears that the talent and depth at these positions only got better. The Crew is only a couple of gams into the new campaign but it appears the offseason investment is paying off.
As our team preview, Massive Report continues going position by position and give our readers a breakdown of what to expect in the coming year. Next up is a review of this Black & Gold midfield.
In his first season, Zelarayan did not disappoint after coming to Columbus as a record signing. Despite a COVID-shortened season and some early injuries, the Designated Player was second in scoring on the team with eight goals in 16 starts, including the first goal of the season, one of the best goals of the MLS is Back Tournament and two goals in the MLS Cup Final. Additionally, Zelarayan was second for the Crew in assists with eight.
His playmaking ability was evident early on last year and with a full season to work with and becoming even more comfortable in Caleb Porter’s system, this could be a huge year for Zelarayan
While Lucas Zelarayan was the headline signing of the 2019 off-season, it could be argued that Darlington Nagbe may have been just as consequential, if not more so. Nagbe, extremely familiar with Caleb Porter’s system, having had success with him at Akron as well as with the Portland Timbers, was a possession and passing machine last year for the Black & Gold.
In 17 starts in 2020, Nagbe was the quarterback of the team, directing traffic and moving play forward. Nagbe’s contributions to the team rarely show up on the box score, but those who watch the game closely can see his impact. He was oftentimes the last player to touch the ball before the assist, creating plays and was constantly dribbling out of trouble to maintain possession. While he only had two goals on the season, his highlight shot against the Chicago Fire rightfully earned MLS Goal of the Year.
Nagbe is a leader on and off the field and will be expected to continue on that department this year. At 30 years old, Nagbe is beginning to enter the back nine of his career but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
The 25-year-old Brazillian was one of the most consistent presences last year in the midfield. Artur started 24 games and helped anchor a nearly impenetrable defensive front.
It was not just on the defense that Artur shined, as he had a career-high three goals and four assists for the Black & Gold in 2020, including the deciding goal in the Eastern Conference Final. Artur improved on all facets of this game, including availability.
He will be a slow starter for the season following offseason sports hernia surgery limiting his training but as he gets readjusted to play, look for Artur to continue his upward projection.
One of the most versatile members of the 2020 Crew, Santos led the Crew in assists and tied Zelarayan for second in goals scored. The Portuguese winger made 26 appearances last season and filled holes in the middle, left and right sides of the midfield.
Since his breakout season in 2019, Santos has been an invaluable offensive weapon for Columbus. Ideally, a more regular schedule and consistency in the other positions will allow Santos to stay in his comfort zone, but his adaptability has been crucial in the Black & Gold’s ability to weather injuries.
One of the biggest names signed in the offseason, Molino brings MLS experience and the ability to score and create for his new club. In 18 games for Minnesota United last season, Molino scored nine goals and added four assists, completing nearly 80 percent of his passes.
Molino will miss at least the first six weeks of this season recovering from an injury, but his return will be highly anticipated as the Crew’s MLS season ramps up.
Derrick Etienne Jr.
In his first season with the Crew, Etienne played an important role in several key matches. In 21 games (eight as a starter) the former New York Red Bull winger scored one goal, but it was an important one in the MLS Cup Final.
Already this season, Etienne has shown versatility, starting at right back in the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 tie. At 24, the Haitian international is just reaching his peak and may challenge for a regular spot on the wings until Molino returns.
The 22-year-old Costa Rican is the epitome of potential ready to bloom. Diaz is one of the quickest players on the roster and has already shown excellent skill on the ball, both as a starter and a super sub. In only his second MLS season, Diaz started 14 games, and while he did not score a goal last year, he has had plenty of opportunities with 31 shots to shots on target (13 last season).
Diaz will face competition when Molino returns but has shown to be dangerous on the wing. If he can convert more scoring chances, it may be his job to lose.
Expected to take on an even bigger role after featuring in 11 games a rookie, including starting the MLS Cup Final, Morris suffered a serious injury that will rule him out for the season. In his second start in two games in the Champions League, Morris went down early against Real Esteli with an ACL tear. He is expected to make a full recovery and return in 2022.
One of several noteworthy signings this offseason, Kitchen will be able to bolster the depth in the midfield. The 29 year old has plenty of experience, and with 19 starts for the LA Galaxy last year, Kitchen is dependable.
The Indiana native is a physical presence that should prove valuable in the CONCACAF competitions that generally skew towards a rougher style of play. Kitchen averages a little over four yellow cards a season in 10 years in MLS, so he is unafraid of the challenging tackle
With that said, Kitchen is much more than just a bruiser. He routinely completes over 80 percent of his passes and has had several seasons of four or more assists. Kitchen provides depth and experience in the midfield for the Crew.
The second Homegrown player in the midfield, the Medina, Ohio native signed for the Crew this offseason after attending Wake Forest. In his COVID-shortened junior season for the Demon Deacons, Parente had four assists and one goal in six starts, including back-to-back two-assist games.
Parente was not expected to feature prominently for the Black & Gold as a rookie but an impressive preseason and the injury to Morris could see him earn more minutes.
The young Romanian was a late offseason addition for the Crew, but one that garnered quite a bit of attention. Matan will slot in on the wing in rotation but could also be the future of Columbus’ No. 10. Matan will probably see mostly second-team playing time but the future looks bright for the 21 year old. In 22 appearances in the Romanian league, Matan scored only one goal but had an impressive six assists. That playmaking ability may prove vital going forward for the Black & Gold, especially if the team’s depth is challenged later in the season.
Massive Report’s previous position previews: