Hudson River Blue caught up with Patrick Murphy of Massive Report, the successor to the SB Nation site of the same name, to get the straight dirt on Columbus Crew, New York City FC‘s opponent tomorrow in Matchday 18: Here’s your NYCFC vs Columbus preview.
1. Mixed feelings in Columbus
Hudson River Blue: Columbus Crew currently sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, a full 13 points behind leaders FC Cincinnati. But the team are on a three-game winning streak and have taken 12 out of a possible 15 points in their last five MLS league games. What’s the feeling these days in Flavortown?
Patrick Murphy: Mixed. I think most fans who pay attention knew this would be an up-and-down season with Wilfried Nancy taking over as head coach and making some drastic changes to the way the team plays. So the fact that it has gone that way isn’t a surprise. There is some growing frustration with a lack of a Plan B when possession and building out of the back don’t work, but there have also been signs that Nancy is getting his players to buy in quicker than expected and the soccer is at least very entertaining.
I will say that the number of injuries, especially along the backline, hasn’t helped matters. Multiple center backs have been out, Cucho Hernandez was hurt for a period, Will Sands was lost for the season with a knee injury, etc. It’s hard to build continuity with so many guys in and out (especially with so many young players playing), not to mention when trying to learn a new system.
I think fans are understanding of this but Nancy needs to keep this team in the playoff picture so things don’t start to sour quickly.
2. Ones to Watch: Hernandez, Matan, Morris, Yeboah
HRB: Last Saturday, Lucas Zelarayán scored the game-winner against Chicago in the third minute of stoppage time. NYCFC fans are all-too-familiar with his ability to win a game seemingly single-handedly. Who else should we watch out for in the Bronx this weekend?
PM: Well, Zelarayán is away on international duty, so they won’t have to worry about him trying that again. Hernandez, mentioned above, is always a concern for the opponent. He had a slow start to the season, enhanced by the aforementioned injury, but is starting to find his form with a goal contribution in each game since he’s been back healthy, tying the team record of eight consecutive.
I’d also add in Aidan Morris, who was called into the US National Team for the Gold Cup, as a player fans should start to familiarize themselves with. He has formed a formidable partnership with Darlington Nagbe in the center of the pitch this season. The 21-year-old has always been a bundle of energy and good at winning the ball back and feeding others to make plays. This year, he has started making those plays himself and scoring goals.
Alexandru Matan is likely to start in Zelarayán’s place this week. The young Romanian has found new life this season with the Crew after struggles following his move in 2021 (including getting loaned back to his home country last year). While he’s not the same level, Matan has a similar stature to Maxi Moralez and is starting to learn how to play in MLS despite not being the biggest of bodies.
The other I would mention is Yaw Yeboah. He struggled to adjust to MLS as a winger last year under Caleb Porter and didn’t seem to have a spot in this team under Nancy. But he’s deputized as an attacking midfielder at times (which could be important with Zelarayán gone) and has played well as a left wing back and has two goals and two assists this season.
3. Malte Amundsen update
HRB: Malte Amundsen joined Columbus from NYCFC at the start of the season, and he already has two goals for the Crew. He was liked and respected by fans and teammates alike in New York City, and his move was a bit of a surprise. How is he fitting in?
PM: This was a great bit of work from general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. Sands, who was the starting left wing back, got hurt just days before the window closed and the Black and Gold were able to make a quick move for another left-back with more MLS experience. Amundsen has fit in very well, playing both in the left wing back spot and at left center back due to the injuries at the position. As you mentioned, he’s shown his attacking prowess with his two goals (both big goals) and his versatility has been key to helping a make-shift backline. He is a player Crew fans have quickly enjoyed (and he’s great to interview, so that makes me happy).
4. The X-Factor: Darlington Nagbe
HRB: What’s the X-factor that could decide Saturday’s game? And is that X-factor named Wilfried Nancy?
PM: I think Nancy can always be an X-factor given his view on the game. I’m very interested to see how he plays this one given the tight confines of the Yankee Stadium pitch. The Crew likes to use the entire field at most stadiums and there obviously isn’t much of that on the narrow pitch. He also won’t have Zelarayán, which changes the tactics a bit given how he can change a game so quickly.
As for a player on the field, I’m going to go with Nagbe. Arguably the most talented central midfielder who never left MLS, Nagbe has a knack for turning it on and off from game to game. When he wants to be at his best, Nagbe can be a difference maker, but sometimes just seems to play down a notch or two. I would imagine he has a bit more advanced role in this game to help alleviate the hole that is Zelarayan, but it will have to be a good Nagbe game for Columbus to be successful.
5. Columbus Starting XI
HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI, final score?
PM: I expect the starting lineup to look like:
The changes would come if any of the center backs are healthy enough to return to the Starting XI.
Gustavo Vallecilla was back in training on Wednesday but has been out for a bit so he seems more likely to be a sub. But if he is back, he could slot in at left center back and Amundsen could move to left wing back. Josh Williams is also back from an injury suffered in the preseason and is getting closer to fitness, but having not played all season, I wouldn’t expect him to start in this one.
I predicted a 2-2 draw on our podcast this week and I’ll stick with that. The Crew’s offense is clicking so goals shouldn’t be hard to come by (though Zelarayán’s absence may alter that some). The backline as I predicted is made up of two wingbacks and a central midfielder, so the Black and Gold can and have given up goals. This seems like a bit of a shootout to me.