E Pluirbus Loonum: Columbus was looked at as Minnesota’s worst of three options to face in the knockout round of the MLS Is Back Tournament. The hype for the Crew is high being 3-0 so far in the tournament and being 4-0-1 (W-L-D) through 5 matches. How do the fans feel about the hype surrounding the team and how they’re playing? Especially when compared to finishing 10th in the East last season with just 38 points.
Massive Report: I think fans expected the team to have a pretty big bounce back after last year. It’s obviously hard to do much worse than the Crew did in 2019 and given the injuries the team sustained and some turmoil with the transition from Gregg Berhalter to Caleb Porter, it was only natural to expect some kind of return to level. Then you look at the form of the Black & Gold toward the end of last season, only two losses in the last 13 games, and it was easy to see that things were starting to move in the right direction.
Now to say that fans expected the team to be perceived as one of the tops in MLS would be an exaggeration. But I also think the hype is a little much. First, I think it’s a small sample size in a unique circumstance and the Crew isn’t often on national television for people like Taylor Twellman to talk about. Second, I think the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United aren’t quite the teams they’ve been in recent years, so maybe wins against those two teams won’t look as good in a couple of months.
With that all said, I do believe this is a good Crew team that can be a contender in the East. The Black & Gold have spent money wisely and found players that fit what Porter wants on the field. It will be an interesting matchup against a Minnesota team that I don’t think many Crew fans wanted to see in the Round of 16.
EPL: This offseason the Crew acquired two key players in Darlington Nagbe from Atlanta United and DP Lucas Zelarayan from Tigres UANL in Mexico. Walk us through the reaction of signing those two players for 2020 and how have they helped on the pitch so far this season?
MR: Both were well-received but neither was probably as hyped of a move as it should have been based on early returns. Crew fans were aware of Nagbe, for sure, and his interest in returning to Ohio and playing for Porter again went back to last year. But he’s the type of player that generally goes under the radar unless he’s on your roster, and in Atlanta, he certainly wasn’t considered a star. He has changed this midfield since coming over and those in Columbus now realize what a player Nagbe is with his possession, passing and control in the center of the park.
Zelarayan was a name most Crew fans didn’t know. In fact, I’d venture to say very few heard of him and wondered about the move a bit. This was a player who didn’t play a ton at Tigres and his statistics didn’t exactly prove he was a sure thing. Given that the team was trying to replace Federico Higuain, there were questions. But clearly Zelarayan is something special, at least in MLS, and credit to Porter, president Tim Bezbatchenko and the scouting staff for identifying the right player and going out and getting him.
EPL: Gyasi Zardes has had a career resurgence with Columbus over the past few seasons. He has scored 4 goals in 5 games this year, being named a DP last season, and the 2018 MLS Comeback Player of the year. Where do you see him long term and how valuable is his offensive output for the Crew?
MR: Zardes is crucial for Columbus. He had the resurgence you mentioned under Gregg Berhalter where he could play his preferred position up top with quality service. He proved that, even though he didn’t have the best touch, he could still get in good spots and finish. His work rate and understanding of the game also made him (and still does) very important in starting the team’s defense and when to press. This has continued under Porter, who wants similar things out of his striker.
As for going forward, I think you see more of the same. Porter challenged Zardes to score 15-20 goals per year and, if healthy, I think that’s doable. He is likely never going to lead MLS in scoring but at 28, Zardes is just entering his prime and continues to work hard to improve areas of his game (like that touch I mentioned above) that could be better. That’s all you can ask of any player, especially those that found success.