Ahead of tonight’s MLS is Back group match against Columbus Crew, we spoke to Pat Murphy of SB Nation sister site Massive Report to break down what to know about a new-look Columbus side feature many new faces including one familiar to New York Red Bulls fans.
OaM: After building a quiet rivalry with Red Bulls around the top of the Eastern Conference in the mid-to-late 2000s, both teams have seen identity changes in the last couple years. What has changed about Columbus Crew tactically and personnel-wise after one year under the management of Caleb Porter?
Pat Murphy: Tactically, not a ton is different. Just like under Gregg Berhalter, the Crew wants to play possession soccer, build out of the back and control the game that way, often creating chances through wide play. This changed somewhat in the middle of last year when the Black & Gold were dealing with a rash of injuries and became more of a counter-attacking team.
The biggest difference I would say between Berhalter and Porter is how they manage their players. Gregg was very hands-on in the sense that he instructed players to the finest detail of how they play. Caleb likes players that can make more decisions for themselves on the field and don’t need as much instruction. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it - you see success with both philosophies around the world - but it took finding the right players (Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, for instance) to make it work the way Porter would like. The second half of last season looked a lot better as players were acquired and to start this year.
Personnel-wise, I mentioned Zelarayan and Nagbe, who were the two biggest offseason additions. Eloy Room came over midseason to replace Zack Steffen in goal. The Crew also signed wingers Luis Diaz (think speed) and Youness Mokhtar (an inverted winger) last summer and those players seem to be fitting in nicely. Outside back Chris Cadden (the likely heir to Harrison Afful) was signed last summer as well but went on loan until this offseason.
This offseason, Columbus also added center back Vito Wormgoor (who is hurt), former Red Bull winger Derrick Etienne and added depth pieces such as Matt Lampson, Andrew Tarbell and Axel Sjoberg. It will be interesting to see how all these players fit in as we progress in this season.
OaM: Red Bulls fans will be interested to know the story on Derrick Etienne, the RBNY academy product who signed with Columbus this offseason. What are Etienne’s chances of playing on Thursday and what is his long term outlook in the Columbus side?
Pat Murphy: I actually think there’s a good chance Etienne starts in this game due to rotation. He’s played in each of the last two games and Porter has mentioned not wanting to burn out players, so I think the wingers could be a part of the rotation. The team really likes what Etienne brings. Porter wants one winger to stretch a defense and another that tucks inside. Etienne certainly can certainly stretch the defense.
I envision him as a super-sub type, who will get his fair share of starts when the Crew needs to rotate. Etienne seems to me to be an ideal player to run at a tired defense, either to help get a goal late or just to release pressure if trying to preserve a lead.
OaM: Long known for being a club willing to recruit far and wide as well as from the domestic scene, who is one Columbus player that New York fans may yet not be aware of but has a chance to make a big impact this month and moving forward?
Pat Murphy: I’ve mentioned most of the new players already but I think the biggest new impact player is probably Zelarayan. Like Federico Higuain, he is an Argentine playmaker, but, at 28, in the prime of his career. The team was adamant this offseason that they would go out and find a game-changing number 10 and it appears they’ve done that in the club-record signing.
Through the first three games, Zelarayan has two goals and two assists, including the free kick finish the other night against FC Cincinnati. He seems a bit more dynamic than Higuain but can still do a lot of the same things. His chemistry with Gyasi Zardes also appears to be developing, which is obviously a big deal for the Crew’s attack.