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2023 Crew season preview: Central midfielders

The Black & Gold return key players at the vital position in the center of the field

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season is just under a week away. As we head to the new year, Massive Report takes a look at the Columbus Crew’s position groups as they currently stand and break down what we expect from those positions in the coming season. Here are the midfielders.

In Wilfried Nacy’s first season as manager, while the names are very much the same, things should look a little different for the Columbus Crew’s central midfielders. If the former CF Montreal manager keeps the same 3-5-2 lineup he employed over the last two years, the Crew will need two competent midfielders to sit behind the main attacking line and connect play through the defenders up to the attackers.

Plenty of the names will be familiar to Black & Gold fans of recent seasons, but roles and how they are used may change. this year under Nancy. Let’s look at each of the options Columbus has in the center of the field in 2023.

Aidan Morris

Last season, Morris was awarded the Kirk Urso Heart Award in recognition of his superb qualities as a teammate and as the heart of the Crew’s locker room. Those qualities showed on the pitch, as Morris routinely demonstrated grit, drive and effort each time he steps on the field. In 2022, Morris made 20 appearances, and averaged 2.7 tackles per game, second only to Pedro Santos. While he did lead the team in fouls per game, averaging 1.5 per game, that shows Morris is a player who is not afraid to stick in to challenges and compete for the Black & Gold.

In 2023, coming off his first appearance for the United States Men’s National Team in January, Morris will look to continue the development he has made as a player since he missed all of 2021 with a torn ACL. He looks to be a perfect fit for Nancy’s 3-5-2, as his intensity and willingness to push forward will be mitigated by his partner in the midfield and the three-man defensive backline. If he stays healthy, Morris appears to be an automatic selection for Nancy game in and game out.

Darlington Nagbe

Nagbe is perhaps the most important player on the Crew roster in 2023, although he won't grab the headlines the way others do. Nagbe doesn’t often score, but when he does, they tend to be world-class. Instead, Nagbe is the soul of the midfield, connecting a strong defensive backline to the attacking players up the field. Oftentimes, under former head coach Caleb Porter, Nagbe was isolated in this role and the team’s success or failure solely came down to his performance. However, in a 3-5-2 formation, Nagbe should receive help from other midfielders connecting alongside him to help shoulder the burden of the connecting play.

The Crew’s Most Valuable Player as voted on by his teammates in 2022 is certainly on the back end of his career. At 32, the three-time MLS Cup Winner will be the most natural selection for the captaincy with Jonathan Mensah departing for the San Jose Earthquakes. What will be interesting to see is how Nagbe responds after the departure of Porter, his former coach at both Akron and the Portland Timbers. Under a new manager, Nagbe’s professionalism will remain unquestioned, but it will be interesting to see if he maintains his role as the lynchpin of this team.

Isaiah Parente

Parente made only one appearance for the first team in 2022, the U.S. Open Cup defeat, but was a prominent player for Crew 2, including scoring a penalty kick goal in the MLS NEXT Pro Cup Final win. Parente featured as a depth piece in 2021, appearing four times and starting twice, but didn’t see as much time in his second season a professional.

Of the four central midfielders most likely to see action for Columbus in 2023, Parente is the most offensively minded, but that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to do the dirty work or be that connecting link. His passing accuracy in MLS NEXT Pro was over 90 percent, which is essential for maintaining possession through the midfield.

The question for Parente is how much time he is able to get on the first team in 2023 to truly test his skills and help him make that next leap. Barring injuries, Parente looks to be fourth on the depth chart and could feature more as a substitute.

Sean Zawadski

Another Crew 2 standout, Zawadski also looks to earn consistent playing time with the first team after he made five appearances, including four starts for the Black & Gold in 2022. Columbus fans will best remember Zawadski from his wonder strike in the 18th minute of the Crew’s June 29 match at Toronto FC. From just outside the box, Zawadski hit a one-time shot that helped the Crew win 2-1.

While Zawadski is unlikely to frequently be on the goal sheet in 2023, he will look to crack the rotation and earn substantial minutes in either a substitute or a starting role over the course of the season. With Nagbe perhaps having some load management throughout the congested portion of the year, Zawadski looks like the most likely candidate to fill in and is likely third on the depth chart for Nancy.

Final Thoughts

The Crew has a strong midfield pairing in Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe and if they stay healthy, you can nearly write their names in pen on every starting line-up card. However, both Isaiah Parente and Sean Zawadski are unproven at the MLS level and if the injury bug hits, the Crew will have few options behind them.

Preview position previews


Center backs