It seems like only yesterday fans waited patiently for the 2021 Columbus Crew season to begin in Nicaragua against Real Esteli. Time flies.
Two months later, the defending MLS Cup champions have played in unchartered territories and battled early-season adversity. The expectation was that this team would be among the best in Major League Soccer, a reality that still exists but certainly hasn’t happened as quickly as many thought it would.
With the June international break continuing, now seems like a natural time to look at the Black & Gold’s season thus far and the good and the bad from the first part of 2021.
Good: Lucas Zelarayan is a beast
After his MLS Cup MVP performance in December, Zelarayan truly announced himself as one of the best players in the league. He had big expectations for 2021 and is a marked man for opponents, causing some frustrating games with little space to enact his will in open play. Regardless, Zelarayan continues to perform at his best on the biggest stages and just in 2021 has some of the most clutch performances in Columbus Crew history.
The April 28 match in Columbus against CF Monterrey was a special encounter for Zelarayan, formerly of Rayados’ arch rivals Tigres. He wore the captain’s armband for Columbus and put together one of the best second-half performances recently seen by anyone in a Crew shirt. He dribbled and directed the ball inbounds to assist Milton Valenzuela’s equalizing goal and minutes later, he scored while falling down and rubbed it into the Monterrey fans' faces.
His most notable performance came in New Jersey against New York City FC in late May. The Black & Gold hadn’t won an away match in over a year and Zelarayan’s skill on set pieces single handedly broke that streak. Two free kick goals late in the match shocked Sean Johnson and NYCFC fans and gave the Crew a big victory.
Zelarayan, the club’s record signing, has proved his worth multiple times already this season and is prepared to do so again and again.
Bad: Injuries at the worst time
Injuries happen in sports but the Crew dealt with ailments at the worst possible time. Head coach Caleb Porter pointed out back in late April that the upcoming stretch of games would be the hardest of the season. The Black & Gold played six games in a 19-day span but lacked what they needed most during that time: depth.
What caused the depth to thin out? Injuries. Kevin Molino’s nagging hamstring kept him out throughout the spring. Aidan Morris tore his ACL in the second game of the year. Marlon Hairston hasn’t been seen yet this season. Perry Kitchen, Milton Valenzuela, Jonathan Mensah, Artur, Gyasi Zardes have all missed time with various injuries. The list goes on and on.
With these mixtures of injuries and games in close proximity, the fatigue settled in and the results weren’t positive. But this three-week break allowed the squad to get healthier and, hopefully, fans will see the team at full strength when the players next take the field.
Good and Bad: CONCACAF Champions League
CONCACAF’s premier club competition was a mixture of positive and negative for the Black & Gold. The team was in its first Champions League in a decade and given a great draw in the Round of 16 facing Real Esteli. The Crew handled Esteli with ease winning 5-0 on aggregate.
Next was the challenge in Monterrey, a four-time champion of this competition. The first leg in Columbus was a valiant performance from the Crew who was seconds away from getting the win before a late equalizer from Rayados. After some controversial officiating, the last-second strike sucked the air out of the building and angered Porter and much of the fanbase. The second leg was a 3-0 loss in Mexico that meant the Crew was eliminated.
The bad from this competition was seeing the Black & Gold struggle to compete with Monterrey on the road and coming up short of the semifinals. The good is Columbus will learn from that series and now has that taste of playing in bigger stadiums against better teams around the world.
Very Bad: ‘Columbus SC’ era
The week of May 9 to May 17 is among the worst in the club’s history for a ridiculous amount of reasons. The Crew’s first MLS win against D.C. United on May 8 was marred by murmurs on an upcoming rebrand announcement and the Nordecke’s protest of the incoming news. This escalated the next morning when leaked images surfaced of the new logo and the name change from “Columbus Crew SC” to “Columbus SC.”
On May 10, the floodgates opened when the club announced this rebrand and officially revealed the new name and logo. Social media was on fire with criticism from Crew supporters, MLS fans, the Columbus community and general sports fans.
It also didn’t help that the play on the pitch was dreary and uninspired as “Columbus SC” lost to Toronto FC and the New England Revolution before ownership announced the re-rebrand. Luckily, this period had a happy ending with the name going back to “Columbus Crew” and a compromised logo was unveiled. Fans could then turn their attention toward the excitement of the team and the new stadium opening.
Bad: Offensive struggles
During that “Columbus SC” era, the play from the team wasn’t in focus. But those two losses in a week’s time included zero goals scored that emphasized an offense that was desperately struggling to begin the season.
To recap, the Crew scored zero goals through its first two MLS games against the Philadelphia Union and CF Montreal. The Black & Gold finally scored in a 3-1 win against D.C. United but relied on a Zelarayan free kick and two own goals. Columbus was then shut out by Toronto FC and the New England Revolution on the road. Through the first five MLS games, the Crew managed zero open play goals.
The reasons for this include Zelarayan being unable to enact much open-play influence with defenders draped all over him, crosses coming from the wings that were nowhere near their target, build-up that was too slow and fatigue. This period had people questioning if the Black & Gold would be a mediocre offensive team in 2021. Those concerns were quieted when Pedro Santos at left back ignited Columbus to a 2-1 victory against Toronto with open play goals. The offense has momentum and has to make sure goals come consistently for the remainder of the year.
Very Good: 11 points despite schedule congestion
A stigma that faces MLS teams in Champions League is always that they stumble out of the starting blocks in league play. Juggling between competitions and playing so many games in quick succession can find Champions League qualified clubs behind early in the table. Despite the injuries, offensive struggles, fatigue and match congestion, the Crew didn’t drop all that many points.
Of the five MLS clubs that were in the 2021 Champions League, Columbus has the second-most points with 11 in seven games. The team’s strong defense, lead by captain Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams, helped to salvage points early when the offense couldn’t score. Goalkeeper Eloy Room had a magnificent start to the campaign and new signing Saad Abdul-Salaam has contributed early off the bench.
Left back Waylon Francis stepped in when Valenzuela was hurt for key defensive performances while Darlington Nagbe and Artur continue to control the midfield in most, if not all, matches. The Crew is just three points behind second place in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand. It could be way worse for Columbus.
If we’re handing out a grade for the first portion of the season prior to the international break, the Crew has earned a B. The Black & Gold have battled for points and showed sparks of what’s to come this year with a fully healthy, rested and trained squad. Full stadiums will only add to the players' determination to defend their MLS Cup with a summer filled with landmark games.