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Game Grades: Crew vs. CF Montreal

From the game plan to the execution, many in Black & Gold had a good night on Saturday.

MLS: CF Montreal at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With the Columbus Crew currently below the redline, the team needs all the points it can get. Especially ones at home and especially ones against other teams right at the red line. On Saturday night, the Crew was able to get all three points in a 2-1 win against CF Montreal.

The Black & Gold had several standout performances. From the Crew’s goal-scoring forward to the fierce team defense, several key players stepped up with vintage performances reminiscent of the team’s 2020 stretch run to the MLS Cup.

Here’s how the Columbus players performed.

Starters

Evan Bush (6) – Solid and reliable in net as he stepped in for the injured Eloy Room. Bush had a relatively quiet night and only had to make three saves, but only the one on Matko Miljevic forced an athletic parry. He wasn't able to get a hand on Lassi Lappalainen's late shot off the post and the rebound allowed Romell Quioto to score.

Harrison Afful (6.5) – Saturday was an impressive, near-vintage performance from Afful. The Ghanaian was solid defensively and pushed forward to provide width in attack, but also provided support when the team pressed centrally. It was an astute tactical performance from the veteran.

Jonathan Mensah (7) – This was a nice rebound game from the captain. Defensively, he was his usual imperious presence. Jonathan won his battles in the air and cut out several passes when he pushed forward. On the ball, the center back’s passes were much tidier and kept his midfielders out of trouble.

Josh Williams (6.5) – The Ohio native connected well with Jonathan centrally and read the game well to be in the position to support Valenzuela’s active defensive movements. His passing was a little more cautious and the result is that Bush and the rest of the backline weren't put under pressure. Again, this was a mentally sharp performance to support the Crew’s game plan.

Milton Valenzuela (8) – Mark this down as the best game of the season from the Argentine. Valenzuela was ever-present in the defensive and attacking phases of the game. Throughout his 70 minutes on the field, Valenzuela turned up in one-on-one battles on the wing, pushed up providing width to Etienne and, most impactfully, played narrowly to overload the middle of the field. His pressure created the transition that led to the first goal. It was a complete game reminiscent of his 2018 season and a promising sign as he continues to regain fitness.

Liam Fraser (6.5) - Part of the industrious midfield trio, Fraser was often the deepest of the three, providing coverage for the ranging Hairston and the possession cycling movements from Nagbe. His biggest impact was his smart one-touch pass to unlock the transition attack on the first goal, but he also switched fields with long passes. It wasn’t flashy, but Fraser was reliable and made the right decisions time after time during his 60 minutes.

Marlon Hairston (7) - The midfielder had an amazing 11 duels on the evening, showing just how involved the rangy Hairston was. The Crew played an apparent midfield press and Hairston was key to having it work. He was in the right position to engage once the press was triggered to devastating effects and Montreal’s midfield couldn’t cope.

Darlington Nagbe (7) – Nominally playing the No. 10, but Nagbe connected more to Hairston and Fraser as the midfield three. The result was that he was integral to the Crew’s midfield press that disrupted CF Montreal all evening. Nagbe only had 41 passes in the game, including his assist on the second goal, but his true impact was in the team defense to smother any Montreal attack. He was rewarded for his defense, intercepting all 50 balls and turning it into a short field with his quick pass to Zardes to pad the lead.

Pedro Santos (7) - Like several other long standing Crew players, Santos had a return to form against Montreal. The winger was a constant danger in the first half, pressing high and creating a couple of turnovers and then setting up a couple of shots from his right wing position. He then showed his flexibility throughout the game as he moved to left back in the 60th minute in place of Valenzuela, providing continued defensive stability while being able to push forward. Then Santos moved to central midfield in the 83rd minute after Hairston struggled with cramps. While not a natural at the position, he still provided a solid shield with Nagbe to finish out the game.

Derrick Etienne Jr. (6) – Playing on the left wing, Etienne remained inconsistent. He wasn’t able to create many moments of danger when the team was in possession against the set Montreal defense, but he shined in the open field. On the first Crew goal, he read the game well, staying wide to cover for Valenzuela and then broke once possession was won. His cross was inch perfect and he came up with big when it mattered.

Gyasi Zardes (7) – After 100 games, the Crew forward has 51 goals, one of four players in team history to hit that milestone. In many ways, this was the typical Zardes game. He scored a goal through his indefatigable running, breaking down the center and arriving into the penalty area to break the scoreless deadlock, crafted through smart movements and hard work. His second goal was a moment of pure left-footed brilliance. As someone with a reputation of scoring “tap-ins,” Zardes put up a Goal of the Year contender.

Substitutes

Lucas Zelarayan (6) – You don’t often see a player like Zelarayan come in when the team has the lead and it showed in his performance. Coming off of injury, Zelarayan needs playing time, but the game wasn’t well suited to someone with his skillset. He struggled to recreate the defensive pressure as part of the midfield three and Columbus didn’t push forward as much after the second goal, scored two minutes after he entered. It was still a successful outing as he got a chance to build some rhythm.

Luis Diaz (6) – A similar problem as Zelarayan, the role coming in as a 70th minute substitute being up 2-0 is different than what Diaz is used to. He provided energy and pace on the counter, but struggled on the defensive side to apply sustained pressure and was less of a connector on offense.

Miguel Berry (6) – Much like Diaz and Zelarayan, Berry struggled to be an impact substitute. He provided energy but was miscast in the defensive and transition roles in the game. Berry was slow on the break, both in pace and in decision making. His pressing was slower than Zardes and the other attackers.

Alex Matan (NR) - The high-energy winger only had a few minutes on the field after being brought on in the 83rd minute, but he provided a bit of pace on the counter and tenacity on defense.

Saad Abdul-Salaam (NR) - Coming on with Matan, Abdul-Salaam only had a few minutes on the field, but he was solid as the left back to close out the game.

Head coach

Caleb Porter (7.5) – Porter and the coaching staff came up with a good game plan to put Columbus in position to win. The team continued to struggle in the offensive phase. This was especially apparent midway through the first half as the Crew couldn’t break down the Montreal mid-block. The defensive plan, however, ruthlessly created challenges for the visitors all night. Until the late Quioto goal, Montreal struggled to break through the Black & Gold’s midfield trio. Supported by Afful and Valenzuela, Fraser, Hairston and Nagbe disrupted Montreal’s attack while creating several turnovers. The transition chances turned into goals twice. It was a clear example of turning oppositional scouting into actionable plans that were well executed.