In stoppage time against the New York Red Bulls, the Columbus Crew scored a game-tying goal with only 10 men on the field. Columbus was down a player after Lucas Zelarayan, the team’s best attacking option the last two-plus seasons, had to be helped off the field after sustaining a knee injury.
Crew fans likely thought the season was over. Watching Zelarayan get taken off the field generated fears that Zelarayan had torn his ACL.
In the week followed, the Black & Gold announced that the Argentinian was only going to miss 1-2 weeks. The international break could not have come at a better time for Zelarayan as he might not miss any game action with the injury.
In his media availability last week, head coach Caleb Porter was not convinced that Columbus would be without the team’s playmaker. He did reveal, however, that the Crew can get by without him,
“We have a plan B, C, D, E, F.” Porter said. “All those, so we’ll be ready if he is out and certainly hope that he is in.”
This confidence that Zelarayan may play against Nashville SC on Saturday might be coach speech so that head coach Gary Smith has to prepare for a full-strength Crew team. But if the Black & Gold are without Zelarayan, it’s good to hear that the team is prepared
Let’s take a look at Columbus’ options without the team’s No. 10.
Plan B: Old Reliable
No one is more trusted by Porter than midfielder Darlington Nagbe. A simple solution for the Crew would see Nagbe move into a more advanced role while young midfielder Aidan Morris starts alongside Artur in the center of the field. Nagbe has all the tools to succeed in the No. 10 spot, with quick vision, dribbling ability, security with the ball and an ability to score an occasion goal of the season.
Morris missed all the 2021 season with a torn ACL after showing much promise in the 2020 MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. A shift for Nagbe would allow Columbus to continue to develop Morris’ talent. The Black & Gold could turn more to Artur to advance the ball from the midfield as Morris’ talent lies more in marking and tackling than the passing vision that Nagbe normally provides.
Plan C: Play a winger at the No. 10 spot
There was much excitement when the Crew acquired Alexandru Matan last season. As a U22 initiative player, many thought Matan would see more minutes. Unfortunately for the Romanian, Derrick Etienne Jr. has played well at the left wing position and has solidified his spot on the depth chart. During the preseason Matan, a winger by trade, played against Charlotte FC, starting as the No. 10. That match played to a 0-0 draw.
During the Black & Gold’s comeback win against FC Cincinnati last season, Matan beat a defender and then put a shot on target, which then deflected out to Miguel Berry for the game-winning goal. While Matan was never able to get on the score sheet in 2021, he was able to impact games, especially with his 1 v. 1 dribbling abilities. The legendary commentator Ray Hudson once described Matan’s dribbling as “twisting and turning like a drunk snake”.
Etienne has experience playing the No. 10 role for the Haitian National Team, playing three of his five games in the 2021 Gold Cup in this position, including against the United States and Canada. Porter seems to value Etienne’s contribution more in the winger position than in the midfield, however.
In the past seasons, Porter has relied on a winger to fill Zelarayan’s spot by calling on Pedro Santos more often than any other player. Santos is currently the team’s starting left back, but could potentially move back to the No. 10 role if necessary.
Plan D: Change formations 4-4-2
Zelarayan is irreplaceable and instead of trying to get a player to perform near his level as a replacement, the team may function better with a change of formation. The Black & Gold have played well defensively, minus set pieces, and Porter will not want to upset that rhythm.
Opting to keep continuity in the backline, Porter might change the attacking shape by adding a second striker. Due to how forward Zelarayan likes to play, this switch might not change much of the build-up play for Columbus. This formation shift will likely ask more from the wingers and full backs as the Crew looks to play more crosses in to find Berry and Gyasi Zardes.
Plan E: Change formations again
Porter is more likely to stick with a four-man backline currently, but a shift to a back three is something the head coach has mentioned considering. With Milos Degenek away on international duty and Josh Williams recovering from an injury, Columbus will not have the training time Porter may want to instill this formation. Fortunately, the team worked on this in the preseason.
A shift to a three-man backline would allow Porter to shift Santos up into the midfield or even as a winger. This seems the most likely way the Crew could get Santos into an attacking position and keep veteran players on the backline. It would also allow others to play in their more natural positions, just in a different possible shape.
Ideally, Zelarayan is healthy by Saturday and can take the field against Nashville, which means Porter wouldn’t have to consider these options. But if the Argentine isn’t, Porter has different ways to adjust and maintain the Black & Gold’s success.