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What We Learned: Crew vs. New York City FC

Our major takeaways from the Black & Gold’s second 2-1 win against NYCFC in 2021.

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night was an important evening for the Columbus Crew. The Black & Gold got its first win at Lower.com Field with a 2-1 victory against New York City FC with a total of 12 players out for the match. Lightning struck a third time for the Crew against NYCFC with Lucas Zelarayan’s free kick winner being the third direct set piece he has scored against the team from the Bronx.

With the win, Columbus has now extended its unbeaten run to four straight games and has just one loss in its last eight matches. This is all while dealing with consistent injuries and international absences. The fans in Lower.com Field went home happy and hope to do so again Wednesday night when the Crew faces Nashville SC.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from this Black & Gold victory at its new stadium.

The Crew has a strong spine

A lot of players are out for the Crew and with Harrison Afful’s suspension for Saturday’s game, the total was 12 players unavailable for the match. Key pieces like Gyasi Zardes, Afful, Milton Valenzuela, Artur, Kevin Molino, Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor and more couldn’t play against NYCFC. Even with those players out, Columbus beat a very talented New York City side and the team’s “strong spine” is a big reason why.

Head coach Caleb Porter mentioned after the win that the Black & Gold has a strong spine. Down the middle of the pitch are four players who always give this team a chance at winning no matter what and Saturday night, they all performed. That spine consists of goalkeeper Eloy Room, center back Jonathan Mensah, central midfielder Darlington Nagbe, and Zelarayan.

The Crew’s goalkeeper returned early from international duty and made six huge saves against City. Mensah held strong in the low block with nine clearances and led a backline without most of its usual starters. Nagbe scored before the first half ended and completed 95 percent of his passes and Zelarayan scored another free kick to turn the result to three points.

Porter can’t sing the praises of these players enough, calling Room “the best goalkeeper in MLS,” Mensah “a beast,” stating Nagbe “has never had a bad game” since he has coached him and highlighting Zelarayan’s incredible set piece ability. Those four are instrumental to the success of the Black & Gold and they led the way to beat a strong New York City squad.

The 2021 signings have gelled with the 2020 players

A lot of the players out are part of the Crew’s 2020 championship core, giving a chance for new signings to get valuable minutes. It’s taken time for Columbus to have the success of its players from last year mix in with what the new players will bring but it’s starting to happen. The team is on the same page and team chemistry is strong.

In Saturday’s match, the 2021 signings Saad Abdul-Salaam, Marlon Hairston, Alexandru Matan, Erik Hurtado, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Perry Kitchen and Isaiah Parente all played well when called upon. The first three names mentioned started and each had strong performances with Abdul-Salaam defending well for all 90 minutes, Hairston transitioning in midfield from defense to attack and Matan running at defenders to create.

The players off the bench each played their roles in the win by playing disciplined defense and adequately clearing the ball or wasting time by running into space. Everyone was on the same page on the pitch and that’s a great sign of things to come as we approach the second half of the MLS season. The new players have mixed in with the old within the Crew squad.

Caleb Porter has a functioning bus

We’ve seen Columbus get results via dominating possession, getting fluky own goals, from free kicks and a couple of two-goal comebacks. This win against NYCFC was the first for the Crew where the team showed an ability to win while staying back defensively. Porter retroactively “parked the bus” and it held for 28 minutes.

The Black & Gold head coach knew this match wouldn’t consist of the Crew holding possession with most of the starters out of the match. New York City is a great attacking side and the tactic was to capitalize on scoring chances and defend. The plan worked and it worked with a majority of the first-team defenders out for the match.

The likes of Afful, Wormgoor, Williams and Valenzuela were all out, meaning Mensah led a backline with Abdul-Salaam, Aboubacar Keita and Waylon Francis. Porter pointed out some of the guys playing are “third on the depth chart” but they didn’t play like it on Saturday. Everyone went after blocks and cleared with authority defending the 2-1 lead. NYCFC had 21 shots with seven on target and an expected goals of 1.97 but they couldn’t get the equalizer.

The defense was in sync, Room came up with a save if the ball got past the back four and those are big reasons Columbus won.