Last Thursday I wrote about how even though Ohio State football was canceled this fall, there was still a team in Columbus we could throw our support behind. Last week’s column didn’t age well, as the Blue Jackets were bounced from the 2020 NHL Playoffs yesterday by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
I felt bad last week since I didn’t mention another team in the capital city that has been very strong this year in the few games they have played. Columbus Crew SC returns to MAPFRE Stadium tonight, albeit without fans in attendance. This will be the first match the Crew have played on their home turf since their season-opening win on March 1st against New York City FC.
Heading into tonight’s matchup with the Chicago Fire, not only does the Crew sit atop the Eastern Conference, but their 2.6 points per game is the best average in MLS. After beating NYCFC, and hitting the road to tie Seattle before the COVID-19 pandemic halted action for four months, the Crew would go on to defeat Cincinnati FC, New York Red Bulls, and Atlanta United FC at the MLS is Back Tournament before Minnesota United FC bounced Columbus from the tournament via penalty kicks.
So why should we throw our support behind the Crew? The people of central Ohio and Buckeye Nation could use something to rally behind right now. Right now there is a lot of negativity in the air, and it’s hard to blame people for feeling that way. With so many normal comforts being restricted right now, as well as the loss of Ohio State football this fall, we could really use something to feel good about.
It doesn’t hurt that Columbus Crew SC is a really fun squad to watch. Last year was a bleak year for the Crew, as Columbus finished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference in head coach Caleb Porter’s first year with the team. The squad made some big moves during the offseason to strength a solid core, and those moves are paying dividends so far this year.
The biggest acquistion by Columbus was to bring in midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. The Argentine spent his previous five seasons with Tigres UNAL in Liga MX in Mexico, where he scored 21 goals in 113 league appearances. Columbus thought so highly of Zelarayan that they had no problem spending a club record $7 million transfer fee to bring the playmaker in.
So far Zelarayan has lived up to the high price tag, scoring the only goal in the win over NYCFC in the season opener, and following that up with two goals in the MLS is Back Tournament — the first of which being a highlight reel free kick against rival Cincinnati.
Joining Zelarayan in the attack is United States National Team striker Gyasi Zardes, who is now in his third season with the Crew. Zardes was acquired from the LA Galaxy prior to the 2018 season, and has scored 37 goals in 67 league appearances with Columbus.
The addition of Zelarayan has taken some of the pressure off of Zardes, who already has five goals in six games this season. With the strong supporting cast around Zardes, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the striker rank near the top of the league in goals scored this season.
What has really made Columbus tick this year is their depth in the midfield. Zelarayan might get the most headlines, but the steadying force comes from Darlington Nagbe and Artur. Nagbe is reunited with Porter, who coached Nagbe not only in college at Akron, but also earlier in Nagbe’s MLS career in Portland. The duo combined for a MLS title with the Timbers, which actually came a few years ago against Crew SC in Columbus.
Artur is just 23 years old and is nearing 100 caps for the Crew. Don’t expect much on the offense end from Artur though, as he has scored just one goal for Columbus, and that goal came in League Cup play. Hector Jimenez is another Crew SC veteran who is more of a defensive force. Jimenez has 141 appearances since joining the club in 2014, but just two goals.
Rounding out the regular squad for Columbus is a solid backline, consisting of a number of veterans and a few new kids. Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah are the veteran starters of the defense, with the Ghanian duo each registering over 80 appearances for Crew SC. Milton Valenzuela and Aboubacar Keita are both in their second season with the club, while Vito Wormgoor joined the squad in the offseason.
Most of the time between the posts for Columbus will be Eloy Room, who joined the club from Dutch side PSV last season. Room has allowed just one goal in four appearances this year. The goalie from Curaco suffered a hamstring injury during the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, which kept him out of the round of 16 match against Minnesota. Had Room been fit to play, the results of the penalty shootout could have gone a little bit differently.
All this to say, throw your support behind this squad because they have the possibility to be one of the most exciting teams in the league this year. Crew SC has six matches scheduled over the next few weeks, with two of those being HELL IS REAL derbies against rival Cincinnati. Not only does Columbus have an opportunity to solidify their spot at the top of the Eastern Conference, but they can also stick it to their in-state foe a couple times during that span.
Soccer might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we don’t have anything else collegiately or professionally to root for in Columbus right now. It also doesn’t hurt that Columbus excitement around Crew SC is gaining steam with the planned opening of the new soccer stadium downtown. This team is built to win now, and is setting themselves up to keep the good times rolling at least for the next few years. We need a winner right now and Crew SC has the look of that team.