There are problems in sports and then there are good problems in sports. Good problems are situations where opposing teams would like to have that problem in their building.
The Columbus Crew has a good problem. The Black & Gold have more talented central midfielders in Artur, Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris than the team can get on the field at once time.
Artur is the longest-tenured member of this Crew group, having joined the club in 2017. The Black & Gold traded for Nagbe prior to the 2020 season, the same year Morris was signed as a Homegrown product after playing in the Academy and one year at Indiana.
In the time all three have been on the team, Artur and Nagbe have been the Crew’s routine starting tandem in central midfield. But Nagbe missed the MLS Cup Final in 2020 due to health and safety protocols and Morris stepped in, becoming the first rookie to start the league’s championship game, and performed well.
Since then, both Artur and Morris have missed substantial time due to injury, including Morris tearing his ACL in the CONCACAF Champions League and missing the entire 2021 Major League Soccer season.
This year, Artur missed more than two months with an injury and Morris started nine consecutive games alongside Nagbe during that time. After Artur returned off the bench against CF Montreal in early August, the Brazilian has started each of the last two games.
“It’s a tough position to be in,” head coach Caleb Porter said of deciding between the two midfielders. “You’ve got two good players. Darlington’s our rhythm guy and you’ve got two ball winners and Aidan’s done well when he’s been in and Arty’s done well when he’s been in. So the last couple games, I chose Arty. I thought that New York City game, we needed his leadership and experience.”
Since joining the Crew initially on loan from Sao Paulo, Artur has played 130 MLS regular season games and 10 playoff games. He has established himself in Columbus as one of the most underrated central midfielders in the league.
Morris played just 10 games as a rookie before his breakout performance in the MLS Cup Final alongside Artur. His 19 games, 14 starts, and 1,207 minutes played so far this season are by far the most of his young professional career.
Of the 18 MLS games the Black & Gold have gotten a result in this year, Morris started 12. In fact, in his career when Morris was in the starting 11, Columbus has only lost two games, coincidentally both to Montreal.
This, in part, has led to questions if Morris should be starting, even when Artur is healthy.
“Aidan’s the future. Aidan’s still, I remind people, still a young player,” Porter responded to this idea. “He didn’t play a ton of games that (first) year, but he had a great game in the final. And then he was injured with an ACL all season the year after that. And then this year, he’s made an uptick of starts. His development and improvement has been outstanding. But you have to understand the progression. He played a few games and then he was out all year and now he’s played a lot of games, and he’s going to continue to play a lot of games. He might play the next game. But you can’t forget that Artur is a very good player and has been a starter and has been one of the best midfielders in the league.”
While there is a thought that Morris brings more energy to the field with his seemingly endless ability to run, Artur brings plenty of value as well when fully fit. Both players have been successful in playing with Nagbe as the ball-winner to complement his distribution and progression.
The perspective inside the OhioHealth Performance Center is that their skillsets are not too far off from each other, although both bring slightly different qualities to the field.
“They are similar players,” fullback Pedro Santos said of Artur and Morris this week. “But obviously Aidan is more the player that runs more with the ball and I think Artur can read better where the spaces are, so he doesn’t need to run too much with the ball. But defensively, they are both ball-winners. So they can tackle, they can run all the game and chase the opponent. Obviously, I think Artur has a little bit more experience now, so he understands a little bit more the game. But they are both very good players and when Artur is out and Aidan can do the job.”
Of course, the debate between Artur and Morris could be settled by playing them together. While Nagbe, the Crew’s lone MLS All-Star this year, isn’t coming out of the starting lineup when healthy, Porter has shifted from the 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3, which calls for three central midfielders, at times this year, starting the trio of Artur, Nagbe and Morris in the center of the field on four occasions.
The 4-3-3 formation, however, limits how the Black & Gold can use playmaker and MVP candidate Lucas Zelarayan by eliminating his attacking midfield spot. Those four games did not feature Zelarayan from the start as he worked his way back from injury. Given that Zelarayan leads the team in nearly all major offensive statistical categories, it would not make sense for Porter to shift formation to accommodate both Artur and Morris.
It’s also worth pointing out that Columbus has just one defeat in the team’s last 12 matches, most of which, especially since the arrival of Designated Player forward Cucho Hernandez, have come from playing in the 4-2-3-1 with two central midfielders from the start.
“I think we’re playing really well,” Porter said. “I guess the question would be, why change? And what we’re always talking about is how we can get our best players on the field, create more, defend better. Always. But we’ve lost one game in 12… I think the worst thing you can do as a coach is over-correct for no reason.”
With a team with depth at multiple positions, like the Crew has, there is no formation that will get every player who deserves time on the field as much as they would like. A case could be made that Jonathan Mensah, Milos Degenek and Josh Williams have all played well enough to start every match when healthy, but the Black & Gold won’t always deploy three center backs from the start because it’s not the best way for the team to win games.
Simply put, Artur and Nagbe are Porter’s first-choice central midfielders at this time. Morris, still a young player, has a bright future with the club but, for now, will often be the odd man out of the midfield starters.
“I hate that we can’t always have players on the field. I wish I had 12, 13 guys (I could) play,” Porter said. “Aidan was playing well. Arty’s a very good player, been a very good player for us. So for me, both those players are good players. It just so happens that one of them is going to be out when we play a 4-2-3-1.”