The Columbus Crew has played just four games to start the 2022 season. This is less than 12 percent of the total the team will play this year, so it’s a small sample size. But given that the Crew does not play over the international break this weekend, it seemed as good of a time as any to reflect back on what we know about this team so far.
With the caveat that plenty will change over the remaining 30 games of the Major League Soccer season, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about the Black & Gold.
Lucas Zelarayan is key
The attacking midfielder has had plenty of praise thrust in his direction since coming to Columbus in 2020 and there’s not a ton more that can be said about how good Zelarayan is at this game. But he certainly deserves mentioning when talking about this team.
So far in 2022, when Zelarayan plays well, the Crew plays well. Through the first three weeks of the season, Zelarayan was on the MLS Team of the Week each week. It is no coincidence that the Black & Gold got off to a 2-0-1 start to the year. Zelarayan pulls the strings in the attack and as good as he has been finishing in his time in Columbus, he is becoming better and setting up his teammates.
Through the first four games, Zelarayan has four goals and two assists, the best overall statistics of any player in the league. He helped bring the Crew from behind in the Week 2 trip to the San Jose Earthquakes with two goals — one a free kick — from outside the penalty box. He did the same with a finish from distance in the next game when the Black & Gold trailed Toronto FC at home. He also teed up Derrick Etienne Jr. for the game-winner against TFC.
All of MLS is aware of the danger of Zelarayan, yet the league has not figured out how to stop him. While Columbus has talent all over the field, Zelarayan is the difference between potentially being a good team this year and one that contends for the Supporters’ Shield.
The Crew can have success without Zelarayan
Without sounding too contradictory to the above point, the Black & Gold have found ways to perform without Zelarayan being the man behind the curtain on everything. One reason for this is the team’s stout play defensively.
Through the first four games, Columbus is yet to allow a goal from open play. The backline has been strong and Eloy Room continues to be solid in goal. After moving from the wing to left back, Pedro Santos has fit right in with Jonathan Mensah, Milos Degenek and Steven Moreria. The group in front of them — as the Crew takes pride in team defending — has been good as well at limiting the opponent's opportunities.
Being a good defensive team means the Black & Gold don’t have to score two, three or four goals per game to win and therefore Zelarayan doesn’t always need to be a magician all the time. As seen in the last game before the break at the New York Red Bulls, Columbus can frustrate the opposition enough to get points when Zelarayan isn’t at his best.
That game, as well as the season opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps, also showed Zelarayan doesn’t have to be at the center of every attack, although he will be involved in plenty of them.
While the stats show Zelarayan finished the game against the Whitecaps with a goal and an assist, it wasn’t a vintage performance by the Argentine. His assist came on a simple pass to forward Miguel Berry, whose deflected shot found the back of the net. Zelarayan’s goal, his only in the penalty box, was crafty but came late after those around him handled much of the offensive load throughout the contest. Against the Red Bulls, Zelarayan had his worst performance of the season and left the game with an injury before a 10-man Crew side crafted a nice counter attack in stoppage time to level the match and leave New York with a point.
Although Zelarayan’s injury isn’t serious, it’s possible the playmaker misses a game and could certainly miss others down the road. While he is important for the Black & Gold and will need to be available more often than not if this team is to contend for trophies, it’s comforting to know that the Crew can get by without Zelarayan at times if needed.
Columbus, you have a set piece problem
As mentioned, the Black & Gold are yet to concede from the run of play in 2022, yet the team has allowed four goals. It is those four set piece finishes that have kept the Crew from being the elite defensive team in MLS at the start of the season.
Against the Earthquakes, it was an 84th-minute free kick sent into the box and a stoppage time corner kick that led to two points dropped on the road. The following week, Toronto found success from a corner kick and then the Red Bulls did as well last week. After initially downplaying the issue, head coach Caleb Porter admitted that set pieces are a problem for Columbus.
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong for the Black & Gold on the dead ball situations, especially without being on the field, it appears the main issue is concentration. Set pieces come after a foul or the ball goes out of play, a short period of time where players’ focus can momentarily wane. While a mental break during a game is fine, the attention to detail has to turn back on as soon as the ball is set and play is ready to resume.
Too often this year, Crew players defending on set pieces end up watching or not following a mark, leading to the mistake that causes the goal. This should be fixable through training and film, with Porter and his staff encouraging those that are back on set pieces to stay dialed in and make sure everyone is aware of their responsibilities while defending and maintaining those until the ball is safely cleared.
Get this issue fixed and Columbus is in a very good spot defensively.
Artur is the Crew’s most valuable player
Yes, the first part of this piece was spent gushing about Zelarayan, and rightfully so. But Artur needs his flowers as well.
The Brazilian central midfielder missed nearly all of last season with an injury and the Black & Gold struggled, failing to defend their MLS Cup title and missing the playoffs. Is this a coincidence? It certainly doesn’t seem like it.
While Darlington Nagbe is a key cog in the middle of the field and Marlon Hairston played well last year, Artur brings something different to the position that the team lacks when he does not play. He’s good at breaking up attacks before they get going, something that often gets missed when casually watching a game. Artur is also good on the ball, making smart passes that keep possession and often advance the play.
His two goals and nine assists in his five-plus-year MLS career won’t win him any awards, but it’s clear that Columbus is a better team with Artur on the field than it is with him off of it.