The Columbus Crew of the last three matches isn’t the same as the Crew team that started the 2022 Major League Soccer season. After the first four Black & Gold matches, midfielder Lucas Zelarayán won MLS Player of the Month and Columbus had two strikers in Miguel Berry and Gyasi Zardes. Everything in the Crew world, outside of set piece defending, looked pretty good. The Black & Gold started undefeated and scored 10 goals in four matches.
Heading into the 11th MLS match of the year, only Berry remains after Zardes was traded to the Colorado Rapids on April 22 and Zelarayán continues to recover from a knee injury sustained on March 20. On the field, Columbus scored no goals in the four straight matches, losing three straight before a 0-0 draw against Sporting Kansas City on April 23.
In that windy and rainy road draw against Sporting, the Crew began to change. Without Zelarayán and less depth at forward, head coach Caleb Porter made changes. Porter’s 4-2-3-1 formation based on possession narrowed to a more direct 4-3-3. Since that change, the Black & Gold have points in three straight matches and five goals in their last two.
Porter’s 4-3-3 formation allowed Columbus to earn points without a No. 10. With Zelarayan unable to facilitate the offense, the Crew played wide, allowing fullbacks and wingers to have a stronger part in goal creation. On Saturday in a 2-2 draw at the New England Revolution, fullbacks Pedro Santos and Derrick Etienne Jr. each facilitated the two goals, with Etienne sending in the final pass on both.
This is a formation that stifled both Kansas City, with the Columbus sitting further back, and D.C. United, where the Crew sent more forward in the attack. The draw against New England is the first of three matches facing the best teams in MLS.
Even though the Revolution struggled to start the year due to match congestion and injuries, New England is mostly the same side that broke the league record for points in a single season in 2021. The next two matches feature the 2021 MLS Cup-winning New York City FC and the top team in the league in LAFC.
There’s good news for the Black & Gold for their upcoming battles. Porter announced that Zelarayán and fullback Steven Moreira are both fit and available to start. Does that mean that it’s time to say goodbye to the 4-3-3?
“We’ve just got to look at the opponent,” said Porter. “A lot of coaches make that mistake, and I’ve made that over the years in some games, going, ‘What’s my best 11? Oh, that’s it.’ You have to look at your opponent and go, ‘What’s my best 11 for this game?’”
Porter continuing with Columbus’ current formation has merit with tough months ahead. With Zardes’ trade, and Berry continuing to grow into a full-time MLS starting striker, the Crew won’t bring in a new Designated Player forward until at least July. Zelarayán’s ability to facilitate the offense, sit up front as a False 9 or the less likely option of playing on the wing means one more spot on the field for new players who’ve shined over the past three matches.
The addition of Aidan Morris to the midfield, alongside regular starters Darlington Nagbe and Artur, slowed opposing midfields considerably. The first half of Saturday’s draw included one total shot and no shots on goal for the Revolution. Also, midfielder James Igbekeme’s versatility to play any position in the midfield infused energy into the Black & Gold. None of this means that the tactic is here to stay.
“I’m going to do what I think is best for this game and then I might do something completely different back at home against LAFC,” said Porter.
As strategies change, there’s still the underlying positive that players coming into matches are there based on their form and the strength of the player. Last season, Columbus went down the depth chart as a necessity across the field with inconsistent results and starting 11s.
In 2022, a three-match losing streak’s been the focal point of the early MLS season. With the Crew now scoring goals, and a small group occupying the starting 11, Porter has options from match to match and situation to situation.