The Columbus Crew began the 2023 campaign on the road in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union. This match brought with it a dramatically changed lineup featuring young stars and returning veterans. In head coach Wilfried Nancy’s first game in charge of the Black & Gold, the Crew came out on fire and was clearly the better team for the opening 45 minutes.
Then, the handballs came. Two controversial penalty kick calls and two more lapses in defensive coverage led to the final scoreline.
As it turned out, the opener was a disappointing result for Columbus, although mixed with optimism on the individual performances.
Let’s take a look at those individual performances.
Patrick Schulte (5.5) – Schulte was the surprise starter over veteran Evan Bush after it was announced that Eloy Room would not be traveling with the team. The Crew 2 standout and MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year made his first senior team appearance, and while he had some good moments, he was only able to make one save on five shots on target. His skills with his feet were apparent at times, but his pure shot-stopping ability will need to improve if he is going to challenge Room for the starting position in the future.
Milos Degenek (6.5) – As expected, Degenk anchored the Crew’s backline, playing a vital role for the team throughout the evening. Often staying back as the last coverage man, Degenek’s focus was purely defensive throughout the night and he had some strong moments. The Australian led the team in tackles with four and contributed an interception, two clearances and two blocked shots, but he wasn’t able to do enough on any of the goals and was called for a controversial handball on the second penalty kick.
Steven Moreira (6.0) – Moreira had a quiet night for the Crew playing in his new position at right center back, as the Union spent most of the game targeting the right side of the pitch. While he didn’t make any major mistakes, he struggled to contribute either offensively or defensively throughout the match.
Philip Quinton (5.5) – Quinton was very involved in the match, as Philadelphia had a game plan to challenge the former Crew 2 standout. Making his senior team debut, Quinton had some fine plays defensively but got a rude introduction to the league on Julian Caranza’s second goal, where Joaquin Torres outclassed him to set up an easy finish.
Mohamed Farsi (6.5) – Farsi was all over the field on Saturday, playing both right and left wing back and making deep runs both offensively and defensively. While he was called for a handball in the penalty box right before halftime leading the Union’s first goal, it is difficult to criticize what ended up being an unlucky break of the ball. Farsi was yet another Crew 2 standout on the field and he showed a lot of his potential with some strong passing and defensive play.
Will Sands (6.0) – Sands was a halftime substation and, although he had played decently in the first half, the Crew clearly needed more attacking potential from his position. Sands has a lot of potential defensively and did a good job keeping the ball in the attacking half, but he needs to be more consistent with his passing and crossing. Too many times, he made dangerous passes that left the Crew’s three-man backline exposed and scrambling to cover.
Darlington Nagbe (7.0) – Nagbe was given the captain’s armband for the Blackk & Gold’s opener and last year’s MVP was up to the task. Nagbe was clearly given instructions to be more aggressive and positive with his passing, and while we didn’t see his typical perfect passing percentage, he was still able to convert 89.4 percent of his team-leading 58 passes. The only troubling statistic was the number of times he was shouldered off the ball, as he was dispossessed four times on the night.
Aidan Morris (6.5) – Morris brought his trademark energy in his 75 minutes of game time against the Union. Morris led the team in total touches with 67 and was a magnet for the ball in both halves of the pitch. Columbus clearly intend to press quickly after losing possession, and no one exemplified this tactical idea more than Morris. As soon as Philadelphia gained possession, it was a near certainty that one would see Morris running towards the ball to try and win it back.
Lucas Zelarayán (6.5) – Zelarayán was praised by Union coach Jim Curtain for his play on Saturday, and the Crew’s No. 10 showed why he is one of the best midfielders in the league. His talent on the ball was incredible in the first half and as all the players gain comfort with Nancy’s new tactics, he will continue to have opportunities on the ball to be the facilitator of the Crew’s attack. He was shackled more in the second half, however as Jose Martinez made it a point to take him out of the game.
Alexandru Matan (6.5) – Matan’s efforts on the Crew’s lone goal of the night did not make it onto the box score, but his run directly led to Jakob Glesnes putting the ball in his own net. Matan has not yet lived up to the hopes of Crew fans excited by his flashes of brilliance and consistency will be key for Matan to continue in the Black & Gold’s starting lineup.
Cucho Hernandez (7.0) – Hernandez also had moments of real genius on Saturday night. His passing was as good if not better than his shooting and he deserved at least an assist on Glesnes’ own goal. Hernandez’s biggest issue was consistently getting involved with the attack as he went stretches at times without getting a touch. This was mostly due to the Union keying in on the Colombian international, but Columbus needs to work to ensure the star striker stays involved in games.
Luis Diaz (5.5) – Diaz came on at halftime as a more offensive option from the right ring back spot. However, Diaz is more naturally a winger and was not able to use his game-breaking speed. He also suffered a shoulder injury that appeared to affect him.
Jacen Russell-Rowe (6.0) – Last year’s MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot winner came on in the 75th minute with the Crew looking for a goal. The Black & Gold did not look comfortable after his introduction and almost immediately conceded the fourth goal of the night. While Russell-Rowe had a few opportunities, he was only able to muster one shot in his 15 minutes.
Yaw Yeboah (6.0) – Yeboah also came on in the 75th minute as part of attacking changes but was unable to make an impact as he too looked uncomfortable and Columbus was unable to mount any sort of a comeback once they went down three goals.
Kevin Molino (N/A) – Molino came on in the 85th minute for Zelarayán and wasn’t able to make an impact in the final stretch of the game.
Sean Zawadzki (N/A) – The midfielder also came on in the 85th minute for Matan and also wasn’t able to make an impact.
Wilfried Nancy (6.0) – This is not the same old Crew. Fans of the Black & Gold have come to expect a certain style that both Greg Berhalter and Caleb Porter fostered. While a 4-1 drubbing is not the desired start for any head coach, fans could clearly see a side that is still figuring itself out and adapting to the new style of play. There were times when Columbus was exciting, adventurous and aggressive and clearly overwhelmed Philadelphia, but the Crew also made a lot of individual errors and the team hasn’t developed the timing that makes the difference between an errant shot and the ball in the back of the net. Nancy deserves a few games to work out the kinks before any evaluation can be made.