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Supporters’ XI: Real Esteli

Choose who you want to start the first Crew game 2021

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Supporters’ XI is your chance to be Caleb Porter, at least in choosing a starting lineup.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The start of a new season brings hope and excitement. For a team that is coming off a year where it won the MLS Cup, there also have expectations. On Thursday, the Columbus Crew starts trying to meet these expectations in the team’s first CONCACAF Champions League game since the 2010-11 season against Real Esteli.

In 2021, Massive Report will continue to ask you, the supporters, to tell us who you want to start for the Black & Gold. Right off the bat, with the first competitive match of the year, there are questions surrounding injuries and how new pieces fit.

During the preseason, Columbus used lineups featuring Academy players. This is a normal preseason but was more important in 2021 with the MLS preseason competing against Olympic and World Cup qualifying. Players such as winger Luis Diaz and goalkeeper Eloy Room played for their countries and in return, didn’t always suit up for the Crew. Preseason scorelines showing Columbus losing many of the team’s exhibitions is not indicative of the caliber of quality the Crew brings to 2021. Preseason is about gelling as a team and getting players healthy.

Columbus is already working through injuries, a familiar storyline from 2020. Midfielder, and Eastern Conference Final game-winning goal scorer Artur will not be ready for 90 minutes on Thrusday, as he’s recovering from hernia surgery. Head coach Caleb Porter shared with the media that he may still get some minutes as a substitute. Will it be veteran midfielder Perry Kitchen or young standout Aidan Morris in Artur’s place?

Center back Vito Wormgoor, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first minutes of the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament is also not ready for a full 90 minutes. The defensive backline did not see a big facelift in the offseason. Will Josh Williams or Aboubacar Keita step in at center back for this Champions League encounter? Both saw substantial minutes in 2020 playing alongside captain Jonathan Mensah.

Of the new players joining Columbus, winger Kevin Molino worked through preseason injuries. A hamstring issue meant he missed international duty with Trinidad & Tobago. Molino played 35 minutes against Orlando City and said that he felt good. If healthy, he could stop the revolving door of wingers playing opposite Pedro Santos. Diaz, MLS Cup goal scorer Derrick Etienne Jr. and former Crew names like Youness Mokhtar and Emmanuel Boateng all filled the role last season.

The only other spot of potential competition is at fullback. Veteran Harrison Afful has held his starting position firmly since joining the club in 2015, outside of the occasional injury. In the offseason, Columbus signed former Minnesota United defender Marlon Hairston. The 27-year-old brings depth for Columbus and puts pressure on Afful. Milton Valenzuela has also been away from the club in the preseason with international duty. This could have opened the door for Waylor Francis, but an injury kept the Costa Rican from seeing time until later in the scrimmages.

Another key offseason signing came in the form of midfielder Alexandru Matan. The Romanian international arrived in Columbus, but will not be available for the trip to Real Esteli. Matan played for the Under-21 Romanian side during Euro qualification, scoring a beautiful goal against Hungary. Columbus supporters will have to wait at least a week to see him in black and gold.

Now’s the time Crew fans have been waiting for, the beginning of the 2021 calendar of matches. Tell Massive Report who you think should start this week with our Supporters’ XI. Before kickoff, a contributor will share his or her lineup prediction alongside who supporters select.

Thursday’s CONCACAF Champions League match starts at 8 p.m. ET and available to stream or watch on FOX Sports 1.