Well Columbus Crew fans, here we are. After an offseason of change and much anticipation, the 2023 Major League Soccer season has finally arrived.
New head coach Wilfred Nancy will have to begin the year with possibly the toughest opponent in the conference: the Philadelphia Union. Philadelphia fell short in the MLS Cup Final to LAFC last year after Gareth Bale notched a last-second header to send the game to penalty kick shootouts. The Union also tied LAFC on 67 points for the Supporters’ Shield last year but lost the tiebreaker on total wins for the season.
Since losing to LAFC for both trophies last season, Philadelphia has retained all of the team’s starters, lost a backup goalkeeper and striker and traded for quality depth at center back and midfield. This is a formidable foe.
Nancy will need to make some difficult decisions to match up against Union. There has been much talk this offseason on how Nancy might line up his squad, but the head coach has reiterated a more fluid stance on formations and lineups, saying that it may vary based on the opponent. A three center back lineup seems to be inevitable, which signals a major departure from the 4-2-3-1 Black & Gold fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
A couple of players are unavailable for this match, notably goalkeeper Eloy Room, who is out after being away from the team to get his green card. Forward Christian Ramirez has been nursing a knock from the preseason and is out as well.
Let’s take a crack at how Nancy might line up his side.
Backup goalkeeper Evan Bush will fill in during Room’s absence. Columbus is high on young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, who won the Goalkeeper of the Year award in MLS NEXT Pro with Columbus Crew 2 last season. While Schulte might have a high upside, it is likely that the veteran presence of Bush will be valued in this match.
Steven Moreira will shift into a new role as right center back in a three-man backline. Milos Degenek will play as a left center back and newly signed Philip Quinton will anchor the middle. Quinton played well with Crew 2 last season and will fill in after the Black & Gold traded captain Jonathan Mensah to the San Jose Earthquakes. Quinton’s size and defending ability make him a solid choice from middle center back, while Degenek’s passing ability and range place him in one of the wide defensive positions.
Nancy should be comfortable slotting in new signing Jimmy Medranda as a left wing back, a role he is familiar with while playing for the Seattle Sounders. On the opposite flank, Nancy has a more difficult decision. Mohamed Farsi is a talented young player who excelled in a wing back role for Crew 2 last season. Luis Diaz is a more experienced first-team player with blistering speed, who also saw an uptick in form at the end of last year. It is probable that both players see playing time as the right wing back this season, but Farsi gets the nod as a player with more familiarity in the role against Philadelphia.
In the midfield, Columbus will field four players. Against the Union, additional support to win the ball in the midfield and disrupt the attack may be needed. Many of the MLS pundits see the Crew playing a front three of Lucas Zelarayan, Cucho Hernandez and Kevin Molino. While this is likely moving forward, it seems an unlikely matchup against Philadelphia. Since Zelarayan and Molino do not provide enough defensive cover, Hernandez will likely move farther back on the pitch to defend against a high-possession team. This would move Hernandez too far back on the field once Crew wins the ball back.
Instead of playing three attack-minded players, the Black & Gold will turn to rising talent Sean Zawadzki to anchor the midfield and break up the passing lanes and possession. Aidan Morris and Zawadzki should cover ground in the midfield defensively, allowing Darlington Nagbe to push up higher and receive the ball in more advanced positions. Although, it would not be a surprise to see Nancy opting to try and control possession by playing Molino over Zawadzki.
Hernandez is a lock at forward, while Zelarayan pushes up into a second forward/high central attacking midfield role. With the midfield covered, both players should be able to primarily focus on attacking and receiving the ball in advanced positions.