The MLS regular season is back and that means the Philadelphia Union are in Columbus for a marquee nationally-televised match pitting 2020’s MLS Cup vs Supporters’ Shield winners. We caught up with Pat Murphy from Massive Report to get ready for the match.
Columbus is coming off of two Champions League games, did they look ready for MLS action, and what do you expect their stamina to look like?
It’s hard to judge the Columbus Crew off of the team’s two Champions League games against Real Esteli. Who is Real Esteli you ask? That proves my point. The Nicaraguan side has done well domestically but was completely overmatched by the Crew in the first leg. In the second leg, the Black & Gold’s reserves controlled the game and eventually found a way to win. At one point in Leg 2, Columbus played a man down due to an injury for several minutes and you wouldn’t have known a difference.
I certainly think these two games were better than playing preseason friendlies because the team knew there was something on the line. But the quality wasn’t much better than playing a USL opponent.
Where is Columbus’s greatest strength? Is there an “X” factor player that doesn’t get talked about as much?
The greatest strength is this team’s defense, there’s no doubt about that. The Crew had the second-best defense in the league last year — second to the Union, it should be pointed out — and may have ranked higher if not for injuries. Starting center back Vito Wormgoor only played in two games before suffering an ankle injury at MLS is Back. He’s still working his way back. Also, other players — Darlington Nagbe, Artur — being out impacted the defense further up the field.
As for a player who could be an X factor that doesn’t get talked about, I’ll say Milton Valenzuela. Columbus is a better team when the left back is playing well, getting up and down the flank, but also giving a very good defensive effort. If it weren’t for an ACL injury that cost him the 2019 season, I believe Valenzuela would be talked about as one of the better left backs in this league.
Darlington Nagbe will be missing Sunday’s game; how will that impact what the lineup for the Crew looks like and how good they’ll look? Is Nagbe’s absence going to be something the Union will want to use to their advantage?
Any time Nagbe isn’t playing, it’s a good thing for the opponent. He is a master at not only holding possession and creating chances in the midfield but his break-up play isn’t talked about enough. To put it simply, Nagbe will be missed in a game between what is expected to be two of the top teams in the East.
In addition to this, Aidan Morris, who became the youngest player to start an MLS Cup Final when Nagbe was ruled out last year, is now out with an ACL tear. This means that the guy who would probably step in for Nagbe alongside Artur isn’t available. Fortunately, the Crew planned for this to some degree, acquiring veteran Perry Kitchen this offseason. I expect him to step in alongside Artur for this game. He will give a more defensive look than Nagbe and it will require Artur to be a bit more attacking.
Lastly, what will the Crew’s crowd size be, and will it create a greater home-field advantage for them?
The Crew will permit 5,180 fans at “historic Crew Stadium” for Sunday. I’m not sure that it creates a major advantage at that number. They had 3,000ish fans on Thursday against Esteli and it was noticeable in that it was more than last year, but still not a normal atmosphere.