The Columbus Crew is in the middle of its worst stretch of the 2021 season. The defending MLS Cup champions have lost their last three matches, including two at home to D.C. United and Atlanta United last week. Amidst this losing streak, the Crew has conceded 11 goals and now barely sits in playoff positioning in the early part of the second half of the Major League Soccer season.
Columbus has not performed as expected for a number of reasons as the team looks to get out of this slump Sunday night at Soldier Field against the Chicago Fire. One hope for Crew fans is a return to solid play and one factor that could help that is consistency in the starting 11. This lack of continuity has affected the Crew all season with the team not having really played its best game because they have not had its best 11 to start.
“When you look at the end of May and early June, we won three games in a row,” said Crew head coach Caleb Porter this week. “When you look at the continuity of the lineups we had for those three games, that would give you a window into what we need to get back to.”
Porter is referring to the team’s wins against New York City FC on the road and the final two victories at historic Crew Stadium against Toronto FC and the Fire. During that win streak, Porter started five players in all three games: right back Harrison Afful, center back Josh Williams, midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan and forward Gyasi Zardes.
During this three-game losing streak, six players have started in each loss, those being goalkeeper Eloy Room, center back Jonathan Mensah, Nagbe, midfielder Marlon Hairston, Zelarayan and winger Kevin Molino. Combine most of those players into one group and it’s a pretty good starting 11 in MLS. The strong difference between the two is defensive presence.
The lineups for the three-match winning streak had stronger backlines with Afful and Williams the constants joined by Mensah, Vito Wormgoor and others. Mensah is the only defender to start each of these last three games alongside six different players, specifically not having Wormgoor or Williams next to him at center back.
“Right now it’s hard to think about more center backs when you don’t have center backs,” said Porter. “Right now, we are just hoping to have a center back pairing. We have not been able to keep continuity because of the injuries that we have had in the back six. We don’t have easy solutions in there. Until we get guys healthy and back in, it still might be a little of a mixed bag in terms of guys we are going to play.”
Wormgoor and Williams are both getting back to full health. Wormgoor is further along, taking part in training this week while Williams is still working to get back from an ankle injury. Both have been listed on the injury reports for long stints alongside mifeidlers Perry Kitchen, Artur and Aidan Morris and left back Milton Valenzuela.
The team wants to return to its form but that’s become a challenge when different players have played outside their natural positions throughout the season. Personal consistency is key, especially in the backline.
“I don’t want to be having experiments,” said Porter.