Saturday, the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati face off in the latest edition of the Hell is Real Derby. For the first time since joining MLS, the two teams meet with both teams fighting for an MLS Cup playoffs. Entering the match, there are personnel decisions needing to be made by head coach Caleb Porter.
Sunday’s disappointing 2-2 draw for the Black & Gold against Atlanta United added two extra wrinkles to the weekend’s derby after midfielder Artur earned a yellow card and is subsequently suspended for accumulation and fullback Pedro Santos suffered a hamstring injury. Post-match, Porter discussed two or three players not playing with enough intensity too.
How does that impact Columbus’ starting 11 at TQL Stadium? Here’s the Massive Report predicted XI for the last regular season match between the Crew and Cincinnati.
Overall, it doesn’t feel like there will be any real wholesale changes from Porter. After all, the offense has done well since the addition of forward Cucho Hernández, who’s scored eight of the last 11 Black & Gold goals. Hernández, Lucas Zelarayán, Darlington Nagbe, Jonathan Mensah, Steven Moreira and Eloy Room are the names written in permanent ink on Porter’s gameplans. It’s five other spots that create questions.
On defense, it’s been either center back Miloš Degenek or Josh Williams playing next to Mensah, but it's been mostly linked to injuries for each of the two defenders. Degenek’s healthy and is improving his adjustment to MLS play in his first season as the year progresses. Barring injury, or something behind the scenes, it's his job over Williams, who still brings a leadership presence on the sideline and in the locker room.
With Santos’ injury, Porter has already alluded to rookie Will Sands taking over at left back for the next three matches. After making appearances off the bench, Saturday’s game will mark the first start for the rookie. That’s a tough ask for any rookie and it isn’t like Sands has sat on the sideline all season. He’s put in minutes with MLS NEXT Pro’s Crew 2. For Saturday though, it's his job and supporters are excited to see what he brings in a big moment after contributing a thrilling build-up in the second goal against Atlanta.
In the midfield, Aidan Morris is a no-brainer to fill in for Artur. After all, Columbus has only lost one match this season where Morris started in the midfield and the 2020 MLS Cup hero was in Artur’s spot after suffering a lower leg fracture in May. If anything, Morris has had more minutes in the position this summer and played against Cincinnati in July at Lower.com Field, so he knows about Cincinnati’s improved midfield and attack.
A name not added to the list of players who have a sure start for Porter is winger Luis Díaz, but he is next on the list. Díaz is having a career year with five assists, all since Hernández arrived. His decision-making improvements and speed make Díaz lethal annd frightening for opponents considering the space he’s finding with Hernández and Zelarayán drawing attention. If the offense continues to improve, the right winger role becomes his spot to lose.
While Porter didn’t name the players who brought less than he wanted on the field, the first substitution he made not for injury was winger Derrick Etienne Jr., who appeared frustrated. On the field Sunday, Etienne did get into a spot early to create a goal but couldn’t finish the play. Does that mean that Porter benches Etienne? No. Etienne is having a career season himself with five goals and five assists. Porter’s chosen Etienne and Díaz predominantly since the beginning of July.
Sunday, Porter brought in midfielder Kevin Molino, who returned from his third torn ACL this summer. Molino had an immediate impact on the match with hold-up play and a pinpoint pass to Díaz on Columbus’ first goal of the match. Does that mean he has the chance to get a start? It wouldn’t be a shock but doesn’t seem likely. Benching Etienne after one performance could do more harm than good.