In recent MLS history, there are frequently teams that have big offseasons and enter with much hype, only to disappoint. Orlando City SC have done it often. The Chicago Fire generally fell apart in the Bastian Schweinsteiger era. Teams are able to improve quickly with the multitude of roster-building options available, but sometimes things don’t come together.
The Columbus Crew were the offseason darling this year, and they have exceeded those expectations. With Caleb Porter entering his second season as manager, they made two major acquisitions: Designated Player No. 10 Lucas Zelarayan, a dominant and productive scorer and distributor; and elite MLS veteran Darlington Nagbe, a hyper-efficient central midfielder.
They signaled a shift in era. They traded Columbus native and longtime defensive midfielder Wil Trapp to Inter Miami, and they declined the option of 35-year-old Federico Higuain, a best XI-level attacking midfielder and club legend, to make room for Zelarayan and Nagbe.
They revamped their backline and depth, signing center back Vito Wormgoor and adding bench pieces like Axel Sjoberg, Derrick Etienne Jr., and Fanendo Adi. Star left back Milton Valenzuela also returned from a torn ACL, which ruled him out for all of 2019.
The results have been spectacular.
Columbus should be favorites to win the MLS is Back
In March, Columbus beat NYCFC and drew Seattle, and in the MLS is Back bubble tournament, they won all three of their group games, scoring seven goals and conceding zero. They can now be considered the favorites to take the whole thing.
Zelarayan, who I picked to win Newcomer of the Year in March, has been elite immediately. In 324 minutes this season, he has three goals and two assists, including a free kick golazo. Porter has managed his minutes in Orlando, subbing him out around the 60-minute mark in the first two games, and then bringing him off the bench for a 30-minute stint in the third game.
The three-man core in midfield — Zelarayan ahead of Nagbe and Artur — is fast on and off the ball. Thanks in part to Nagbe’s incredible ability to never lose the ball, they are flawless playing out of pressure. Once they break through, Zelarayan is talented enough to orchestrate a positive attacking action. Gyasi Zardes, playing up top, hits every half-space and pops up to facilitate on the ball and make smart runs.
A rotating cast of wingers — Pedro Santos, Etienne, Luis Diaz, Youness Mokhtar — brings various skillsets and on-ball abilities. Everyone can keep up, and Zelarayan has a knack for turning attacking third possession into on-goal chances. (It should be noted that his underlying metrics don’t back this up yet, though I have confidence those will turn around.)
Artur has developed into an effective two-way midfielder, forming a solid double-pivot pairing with Nagbe. Any defensive concerns about the two have been pretty much squashed, as the Crew have kept a clean sheet running for three games straight and opposing teams and have struggled to find a gap between Columbus’s midfield and backline.
Nagbe continues to be arguably the best ball-mover in the league. Frank de Boer, his former coach in Atlanta, compared him recently to Sergio Busquets. Nagbe completes passes at an extraordinary rate (95 percent this season, by far the best in the league) and still manages to attempt aggressive, line-breaking passes. He is calm under pressure and knows how to pass and dribble out of dicey situations.
An injury to Wormgoor (who’s out four to six months with an ankle injury) will hurt a backline that has stood tall, but Valenzuela is easing back into full game fitness, adding a major asset at full back.
Porter has been putting together organized, competent MLS teams for years, and he helped a Nagbe-centered Timbers team win MLS Cup back in 2015. He has done it again with this Columbus team. They’re hard to play against, and so far, there hasn’t been a system that can counter what makes the Crew good. Press them, and they’ll play through you. Sit back, and they’ll carve out scoring opportunities through clever passing and set pieces.
They couldn’t have played much better in the group stage. Now we see if they’re good enough to hold this form into the knockout round.