I have a clearly established hierarchy in my closet. There are my top quality, time-tested clothes used on days where I have to impress people with my impeccable style, my less impressive but solid contributors used on laundry days or Fridays when I’ve run out of good outfits, and my home-only pieces. Retiring clothes to home-only usage is always a solemn occasion, acknowledging the fact that they are no longer productive and thus must be hidden from the public eye is as disheartening as it gets. It’s the only time I allow myself to show emotion. That and Die Hard.
You probably thought I’d make a quip about the international break or the US Men’s National Team didn’t you? Foolish. It’s not coming.
After a brief vacation, the Red Bulls are back to the MLS grind as they close out the final two games of the regular season before beginning the postseason journey. With playoff soccer already clinched, the primary concern in Harrison is finishing the season in good form to advance as far as possible in a hopeful journey to an MLS Cup. The next step on the road is the Columbus Crew, a side that in 2022, and for most of its history, has disappointingly underperformed.
After its MLS Cup triumph in 2020, the club missed the playoffs entirely in 2021, and are currently 8th in the East, deep in a vicious race for the final playoff spots that will likely last until Decision Day. Ridiculous inconsistency has plagued the Crew throughout the season, and despite a strong start to the campaign, they were never able to string results together in the middle of the year, and have been left 9-15-7. The most glaring problem is their inability to close out games, with Matthew Doyle reporting that out of the 36 goals the Crew have conceded this year, a whopping 15 have come in the 75th minute or later of games that they were drawing or leading. But curiously enough, the defense itself is performing admirably, with the aforementioned 36 goals conceded being the joint third stingiest total in the league. It’s an unfortunate mental issue plaguing the side, and until they break the streak it’ll be hard to turn the season around.
Offensively, head coach Caleb Porter is a strict adherent to the 4-2-3-1. He’ll encourage high amounts of possession, and his offensive scheme depends on quick ball movement and effective wing play. Oftentimes one of the holding midfielders, typically Darlington Nagbe , will drop back in between the center-backs so that fullbacks can push even higher and stretch the field. Quick interplay is key, forcing defenses out of position before a clinical pass to get an attacker through. When it works, it’s beautiful to watch. However a lot of the time it hasn’t, with attacking play simply too slow and opponents easily being able to stay organized and compact. The Crew have amassed the sixth lowest xG in the entire league with only 37.9 projected goals according to the metric, and while solid finishing has let them overperform this total, it’s indicative of a larger issue in creating high-quality chances. The Crew also possess the second-highest average shot distance in the league, as moves breaking down typically end in a hopeful long shot that Lucas Zelerayan tried his best to make work early in the year, but mostly end up in the stands. All things considered, the Crew have struggled to score enough to leave games assured, and with the aforementioned defensive problems has left them frustrated after most final whistles.
Despite their poor form, the Crew are still a very good team with very good players, and with a semblance of a rivalry starting to build with New York after a series of heated encounters in recent years, they’ll be motivated to do well with their playoff hopes likely on the line. It’ll be a real test for a Red Bulls side looking to bounce back from an underwhelming performance in the Hudson River Derby, as they look to get back on track psychologically before the season ends. While Struber claims that the team is solely focused on the task at hand, there’s no denying that the team will have an eye on the postseason this late in the year. A convincing win will go a long way in raising the mood in Harrison before the mentally testing grind of knockout soccer, and with such a young squad could ultimately define how the team ends the year.
Funniest name - Perry Kitchen
Only 5 MLS appearances on the year, but the 30 year old midfielder could probably cook any defender if he played. A very skillet player. Oil say he’s a key ingredient to the team’s success.
Honorable Mentions: Eloy Room, Evan Bush
Most surprisingly Armenian - Lucas Zelarayan
He’s reportedly never been to the country he represents on the international stage, but that’s international soccer for you.
Most likely to star in a toothpaste commercial - Aiden Morris
I’m not sure what this means either. But it’s true.
Most likely to steal your girl - Lucas Zelarayan
A second award for the former Tigres man, who is as handsome as he is European.
Columbus Crew (4-2-3-1): Room, P. Santos, J. Williams, Degenek, Moreira, Nagbe, Artur, Etienne Jr., Zelarayan, L. Diaz, Hurtado
New York Red Bulls (3-4-3): Coronel, S. Nealis, A. Reyes, D. Nealis, Tolkin, Edelman, Clark, Duncan, Luquinhas, Klimala, Morgan
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Remember him? He’s still good.
Despite his international career being ended by the failed 2018 World Cup qualification cycle, Nagbe has built himself a solid career in MLS, moving to Columbus from Atlanta in 2019 and becoming a regular starter under Caleb Porter. He’s slotted right into the 4-2-3-1 as a holding midfielder, and as mentioned previously has taken on the Franz Beckenbauer-esque role of dropping between the Crew’s center-backs when in possession so that the fullbacks can advance further. It’s a risky strategy that requires effective passing and calm on the ball from the dropping midfielder, but it plays into Nagbe’s strengths perfectly.
He’s an elite passer of the ball, in the 99th percentile of MLS midfielders in pass completion percentage, and a fine ball progressor when necessary. He’s no slouch offensively, but he’s everything you’d want in a holding mid, completely calm on the ball and rarely dispossessed. Third in touches on the squad, he’s the underappreciated cog that keeps the Crew ticking. Against the Red Bulls pressure, he’ll be key in making sure that Columbus are able to effectively conduct their possession game.
Red Bulls Central Midfield
With Cristian Casseres now out with a leg problem, Frankie Amaya already questionable with a recent groin problem, Dru Yearwood suspended, and Daniel Edelman, Caden Clark, and Steven Sswerwadda all coming back from recent international duty, the Red Bulls midfield is a concern heading into Columbus. Casseres and Edelman had been the consistent starting pair in recent weeks, but with the former now out and thin availability at the position, Struber will likely have to alter tactically to field a solid 11.
The Austrian coach has alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3 throughout the year, with the former relying on a stricter double pivot, and the latter allowing for more two-way play from the two central midfielders. The 4-2-3-1 has been used more recently, and Ugandan international Steven Sswerwadda would be the preferred choice for the formation, being a much more natural defensive midfielder than Clark. However, his inexperience and lack of MLS action could leave Struber hesitant to give him a start in such a high-stakes encounter. The sharper and more trusted Clark would be able to play as a traditional 8 in the 3-4-3, but he hasn’t been played there often this year and Struber has shown signs of preferring him elsewhere. Edelman should be a lock to start despite possible fatigue from international duty, so seeing if said fatigue affects him and how his partner affects the Red Bulls setup as a whole will be something to keep an eye on.
Derrick Etienne Jr.
He’s the Crew’s second highest goalscorer with 6 and should be watched from a pure sporting perspective, but former player reunions are always nice.
Columbus aren’t in particularly good form, but they typically show up against the Red Bulls to a frustrating extent. Expect a 0-0 draw, similar to the United States’ against Saudi Arabia. There’s your quip.