Crew View: Midseason report card

Ahead of this week’s pair of home games, let’s grade the Crew’s position groups

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room looks on against New York City FC during the second half at Yankee Stadium on July 30.

July 30 is when the Crew’s midsummer balancing act came crashing down. All month long, Columbus had been playing with a depleted roster due to injuries and international call-ups. All month long, they’d been gutting out results — largely thanks to impact players like Lucas Zelarayán, Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Mensah and Eloy Room stepping up the way stars are supposed to step up — and staying in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was impressive in its way.

It couldn’t last forever. Last Friday the Crew fell 4-1 at New York City FC. It was their first loss in more than a month and their worst loss of the year, one of those brutal humblings that come along now and then no matter how good your team is. Even the Crew’s goal, a theoretical bright spot, was a meaningless PK converted by Pedro Santos in stoppage time, when they were already down by four goals. Coach Caleb Porter called it a “disappointing” and “embarrassing” loss for his team.

Columbus will have two chances to bounce back at home this week. They’ll host DC United on Wednesday and Atlanta United on Saturday, both at 7:30 p.m., both at the newly opened Lower.com Field. (The Clippers have home games both nights as well, so you may want to heed Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo’s advice about how to navigate the Arena District when both teams are playing.) After Wednesday’s match, the Crew will be halfway through its 34-game MLS schedule, so it’s time to assess how they’ve performed so far in 2021.

Goalkeepers: Backup Evan Bush has played well in two starts, but mostly this position has been Room’s show, and the show has been spectacular. Don’t let Friday’s four-goal slaughter mislead you; the Curaçaoan keeper has kept the Crew alive in quite a few games this year with save after acrobatic save. His goals against average of 1.0 ranks fifth among MLS keepers, but he’s playing as well as any goalie in the league right now (New England mainstay and U.S. men’s national team rising star Matt Turner included). Room has been responsible for some of the Crew’s most electric highlights of the season. It would be nice if he would get vaccinated against COVID-19, though, so he wouldn’t have to do things like driving back from Dallas instead of flying to avoid quarantining. Grade: A-

Defenders: Along with Room, the backline has been key to the Crew’s success. Mensah, the captain, has been a rock as usual and even got into the offensive action with a game-winning header at Atlanta last month. His usual partner at center back, Josh Williams, was having a mostly solid campaign as well before a left ankle injury sidelined him for much of the summer. Injuries have kept Vito Wormgoor and Milton Valenzuela largely out of action, too — and when they have played, they have not really seemed ready. Credit young local natives Saad Abdul-Salaam and Aboubacar Keita and, to a lesser extent, veterans Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis for gutting out decent performances more often than not. But mostly stand in awe of Mensah, who has matured into an elite defender and a leader worthy of his Designated Player contract. Grade: B-

Central midfielders: The absence of Artur due to a lingering hip injury has been a blow to this unit, and he’ll be out another 10-12 weeks after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia this week. Let’s also not forget the Crew lost young stud Aidan Morris to a torn ACL in April after less than four minutes of CONCACAF Champions League play. Those who remain have picked up the slack admirably. Offseason signees Marlon Hairston and Perry Kitchen are seasoned MLS veterans, and both have played like it. Darlington Nagbe, the Ohio native who has now won MLS Cups with three separate franchises (Portland, Atlanta and Columbus), continues to be the linchpin. Nagbe has the ability to take over a game when he wants to, be it through ultra-efficient passing, savvy defensive play or rare offensive explosions like his goal against New York City in the Crew’s first win at their new stadium. When he’s at his best, the Crew feels unbeatable. Grade: B-

Wingers: What a disappointment this position has been so far. Some of that is due to the aforementioned injuries and call-ups, which has sometimes left the Crew depth chart rather shallow out wide. Still, the promise of a rotation featuring Santos, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne Jr. and new addition Kevin Molino was tantalizing. Instead, they’ve combined for a whopping one goal from the run of play. That’s not going to cut it if Columbus wants to repeat as MLS Cup champs. And it’s not like the wingers have been piling up assists in lieu of scoring; their crosses can’t help but seem amateur compared to the pinpoint service Lucas Zelarayán provides on set pieces. Arguably the best contribution any winger has made to this Crew season is Santos filling in competently at left back in one of Porter’s most successful attempts to cover for the injured Valenzuela. Grade: D

Strikers: Gyasi Zardes has been carrying this unit, and even his play has been more workmanlike than spectacular. Zardes has only scored four goals in league play, but it feels like more due to his scoring in the Champions League, the wild New England own goal he created on opening day at Lower.com Field and his recent game-winner for the U.S. men’s national team in a Gold Cup semifinal against Qatar. Miguel Berry, who has mostly been on loan to the minor league ​​San Diego Loyal SC for the past year, came back to the Crew and logged a dramatic tying goal at Cincinnati. Elite striker Bradley Wright-Philips, acquired as a free agent over the winter, has been showing his age a bit in the form of injuries and unproductive minutes. And then there’s Erik Hurtado, an absolute tank who has yet to be much more than dead weight on the pitch since a desperate Crew picked him up earlier this summer. (He, too, has opted not to get vaccinated. Get vaccinated, you guys!) I am inclined to make excuses for most of them, but the numbers don’t lie, and it would be crazy to give a positive grade to a bunch of forwards who’ve only combined for five goals in 16 games. Grade: C+

Attacking mids: This is basically just Lucas Zelarayán, though players like Santos and Alex Matan have spelled him at times. It can’t be emphasized enough what an incredible find Zelarayán turned out to be when Columbus snagged him from Tigres two winters ago. The Crew’s playmaker has continued his hot streak from last year’s MVP-grade playoff run: scoring a team-leading five goals, tacking on two assists and providing endless creative wizardry all over the attacking side of the field. It’s depressing to think about where this team would be without him — but it’s also exciting to think about how far he could carry them. Grade: A