It seems it was only yesterday that fans waited patiently for the Columbus Crew’s 2021 season to kick off in Nicaragua against Real Esteli. Time is passing.
Two months later, the defending MLS Cup champions played into uncharted territory and battled adversity early in the season. This team was expected to be some of the best in Major League Soccer, a reality that still exists but certainly didn’t happen as quickly as many thought.
With the international truce for June continuing, it now seems like a natural time to review the Black & Gold season so far and the good and bad of the first part of 2021.
Good: Lucas Zelarayan is a beast
After his performance as an MLS Cup MVP in December, Zelarayan has truly established himself as one of the best players in the league. He had high expectations for 2021 and is a marked man for opponents, causing frustrating matches with little room to fulfill his will in open play. Either way, Zelarayan continues to give his best on the biggest stages, and in 2021 he has some of the most clutches performances in Columbus Crew history.
The April 28 game in Columbus against CF Monterrey was a special encounter for Zelarayan, Rayados’ former big rival, the Tigers. He wore the captain’s armband for Columbus and had one of the best second-half performances recently seen by anyone wearing a Crew jersey. He dribbled and steered the ball into bounds to help Milton Valenzuela’s tying goal and minutes later he scored while falling and rubbed it in the face of the Monterrey fans.
His most notable performance came in New Jersey against New York City FC in late May. Black & Gold hadn’t won an away game in over a year and Zelarayan’s set-piece skills single-handedly broke that streak. Two late free-kick goals shocked Sean Johnson and NYCFC fans and gave the Crew a big win.
Zelarayan, the club’s record signing, has already proven his worth several times this season and is ready to do so again and again.
Bad: Injuries at the worst time
Injuries happen in sport, but the crew treated the ailments at the worst possible time. Head coach Caleb Porter stressed at the end of April that the next streak of games would be the most difficult of the season. The Black & Gold played six games in 19 days but lacked what they needed most during that time: depth.
What made the depth decrease? Injuries. Kevin Molino’s stubborn hamstrings kept him on the sidelines throughout the spring. Aidan Morris tore his ACL in Game 2 of the year. Marlon Hairston has yet to be seen this season. Perry Kitchen, Milton Valenzuela, Jonathan Mensah, Artur, Gyasi Zardes all ran out of time with various injuries. The list is lengthened increasingly.
With this mix of injuries and close matches, fatigue set in and the results were not positive. But this three-week hiatus has kept the squad in better health and hopefully fans will see the full squad the next time the players step on the pitch.
Good and bad: CONCACAF Champions League
CONCACAF’s first club competition was a mix of positives and negatives for Black & Gold. The team were in their first Champions League in a decade and were drawn in the round of 16 against Real Esteli. The crew handled Esteli with ease, winning 5-0 on aggregate.
Then, the challenge of Monterrey, quadruple champion of this competition. The first leg at Columbus was a valiant performance for the crew who were seconds away from securing the victory before a late equalizer from Rayados. After a few controversial arbitrations, the last-second strike sucked air from the building and angered Porter and much of the fans. The second leg was a 3-0 loss to Mexico, which resulted in the elimination of the crew.
The bad thing about this competition was seeing the Black & Gold struggling to compete with Monterrey on the road and missing the semi-finals. The good thing is that Columbus will learn from this series and now has a taste for playing in bigger stadiums against better teams from all over the world.
Very bad: ‘Columbus SC’ era
The week of May 9-17 is among the worst in club history for a ridiculous number of reasons. The crew’s first MLS victory over DC United on May 8 was marred by whispers about an upcoming rebranding announcement and Nordecke’s protest against the incoming news. This escalated the next morning when leaked images of the new logo surfaced and the name changed from “Columbus Crew SC” to “Columbus SC”.
On May 10, the floodgates opened when the club announced the rebranding and officially revealed the new name and logo. Social media was on fire with criticism from Crew supporters, MLS fans, the Columbus community and sports fans in general.
It also didn’t help that the field play was bleak and uninspired, as “Columbus SC” lost to Toronto FC and the New England Revolution before the owners announced the rebranding. Fortunately, this period had a happy ending with the name going back to “Columbus Crew” and a compromised logo was unveiled. Fans could then turn their attention to the excitement of the team and the opening of the new stadium.
Bad: Offensive struggles
In the days of “Columbus SC”, the team’s game was not ready. But those two losses in one week included zero goals scored which put emphasis on an attack that was desperately struggling to start the season.
To recap, the Crew did not score any goals in their first two MLS games against the Philadelphia Union and CF Montreal. Black & Gold ultimately scored in a 3-1 win over DC United but relied on a free kick from Zelarayan and two own goals. Columbus was then shut out by Toronto FC and the New England Revolution on the road. In MLS’s first five games, the Crew failed to score any open play goals.
The reasons for this are that Zelarayan hasn’t been able to exert much influence in open play with defenders draped over him, crosses from wings that were far off target, too slow build-up and fatigue. This period made people wonder if the Black & Gold would be a mediocre attacking team in 2021. Those concerns were allayed when Pedro Santos at left-back ignited Columbus to a 2-1 victory over Toronto with goals in open game. The offense has momentum and needs to make sure goals come in regularly for the rest of the year.
Very good: 11 points despite the congestion of schedules
One stigma that MLS teams face in the Champions League is always that they stumble out of the starting blocks in the league. Juggling competitions and playing so many matches in quick succession can find Champions League qualified clubs behind early in the table. Despite the injuries, the offensive difficulties, the fatigue and the overcrowding of the matches, the crew did not lose as many points.
Of the five MLS clubs that were in the 2021 Champions League, Columbus has the second-most points with 11 in seven games. The team’s strong defense, led by captain Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams, helped scoop points early when offense couldn’t score. Goalkeeper Eloy Room had a magnificent start to the campaign and new signing Saad Abdul-Salaam contributed early on the bench.
Left-back Waylon Francis stepped in when Valenzuela was injured for key defensive performances while Darlington Nagbe and Artur continue to control the midfield in most, if not all, games. The Crew are just three points behind second in the Eastern Conference with one game short. It could be a lot worse for Columbus.
If we give a score for the first part of the season before the international break, the crew got a B. The Black & Golds fought for the points and showed sparks of what awaits them this year with a good health, rested and trained team. Full stadiums will only add to the determination of players to defend their MLS Cup with a summer filled with game highlights.