Opinion: The Columbus Crew are in a new era


Carter Sims

Crew supporters unveil a tifo featuring new manager Wilfried Nancy.

Carter Sims, Managing Editor

October 9, 2022. Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida. Decision Day. The Columbus Crew marched out in all gold. A result—a draw or a win—would be enough to secure the last playoff spot. Orlando City SC, the day’s opposition, walked out clad in purple, needing a win to nab that same playoff spot.
Columbus opened the scoring with Derrick Etienne Jr streaking into the box and slotting it home in the 38th minute, earning the Crew a lead that would last until the 55th minute, when Junior Urso spun through the back line to level the game at 1-1. Columbus looked set to take back control as Cucho Hernandez stole the ball and found a breakaway with midfielder Aidan Morris awaiting the ball in the middle. But Hernandez opted to shoot through traffic, leaving Columbus empty handed.
The missed opportunity was only the beginning of the horror about to take place in Central Florida.
In the 80th minute, Milos Degenek made contact with the ball with his hand while in the penalty box. After a VAR review it was determined the offense warranted a penalty kick, which was soon converted by Orlando’s Fecundo Torres.
Columbus battled, but Pedro Gallese stifled every attempt and the sun set on the Crew’s 2022 campaign.
The following day, manager Caleb Porter was fired after failing to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year. This was anything but surprising, as Porter’s time in Columbus had been a steady rot after lifting the cup in 2020.
If there’s one thing that’s consistent with Caleb Porter, it’s inconsistency. His history of success only to follow it up with disappointment (in Akron and Portland) followed him to Columbus.
After an extensive search, Columbus brought in former CF Montreal manager Wilfred Nancy, and an offseason of change was underway.
The moves started with some long tenured players packing up. Fan favorite winger-turned-defender Pedro Santos wasn’t brought back after being with the club since 2017. Veteran midfielder Artur was traded to Houston Dynamo, and beloved captain Johnathan Mensah was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes days before the season.
All these moves came with some feelings, as these players had all been with the Crew for several years and had earned the love of supporters. Nevertheless, they needed to happen.
Starting with Santos, shifting to defender and fighting honorably on the backline was needed for the Black and Gold, but it was evident at times that he was out of position. His effectiveness that primarily hinged off of service balls was limited because of the change, and his habit of flopping just wasn’t practical.
Artur’s lack of athleticism and overall ineffectiveness in a club full of midfield talent just wasn’t good enough, and his departure was the least surprising considering the player that filled his spot.
Mensah was a great leader for the Crew, but had become a step slow on the backline and wasn’t winning as many challenges and arial balls and definitely wasn’t generating as many clearances compared to years past. He, like the others, gave a lot to the club over the years, but the time had come.
A bit more puzzling was the Crew’s decision to let leading scorer Derrick Etinne Jr. walk and sign with Atlanta United. His attacking contribution was key for Columbus in 2022, and questions arose on how the club would cope given that the attack had gone cold over various stretches last season.
The moves raised eyebrows, but changes can be expected when a new boss comes into a club. Now that the old was out and the new was in, it was time to shift focus to the 2023 season and put together a lineup to fit the vision of Wilfried Nancy.
The Nancy era started with a 4-1 defeat to Philadelphia Union. The scoreline was deceiving as the match was much more competitive than the goal margin indicated due to some penalty kicks. The following weeks, Columbus looked more cohesive, with a 2-0 over D.C. United and a 1-1 draw at Toronto FC thanks to a Jimmy Medranda goal just moments after being subbed on.
The key word for the Crew’s style this year: possession. Instead of forcing long passes and relying on isolated dribbling, the attack is composed of patient passes to move up field and to get as many people in the box as possible.
This model’s effectiveness starts with how often the Crew can get the ball: a burden that mostly gets placed on the backline. To start the season, Will Sands occupied the more advanced left wingback spot, while Phillip Quinton, Milos Degenek and Steven Moreria took center back positions with Josh Williams injured. This was a different look than Porter’s 4-3-3 formation where Moreira took the right back spot. That area is now occupied by Mo Farsi, who also plays a wing back role.
This change shows the evolution of the club in many ways. Obviously the formation change is attributed to the new manager’s style of play, with players taking less independent and defined roles. Farsi and Sands advanced at alternating times, both stopping attacks and providing service balls on the other end. The wing backs are on a yo-yo, a yin and yang of attack and defense at any given time.
More than the X’s and O’s though, this look signifies Nancy’s greater vision: strengthening the club as a whole through youth development. Both Farsi and Sands were featured players on Crew 2, the club’s development team in the new MLS NEXT PRO league. The “Capys” or Capybaras (a nickname given to the squad by supporters) won the league’s regular season and playoff championships in the inaugural year.
Farsi and Sands broke into the first team this year accompanied by midfielder Sean Zawadzski, striker Jacen Ruseel-Rowe and goalkeeper Patrcik Schulte, who all have significant roles on this year’s team after starring for the Capys last season.
Speaking of Schulte, the young keeper has become the go-to option for Columbus as Eloy Room’s form and availability is now a question. Schulte has been steady in goal, but does have a tendency to get off his line at times, which could be dangerous down the road.
Moving up the formation, perhaps the Crew’s strongest area is the midfield. New captain Darlington Nagbe is one of the most established players on the team, as the veteran’s passing accuracy and steadiness on the ball helps everything go. Just as important for the Crew, though, would be Nagbe’s partner in the center of the pitch, Aidan Morris.
Morris is an absolute star in the most inconspicuous way. The 21 year old who grew up in the Crew Academy shows true grit every match, putting in challenges and fighting for the ball by any means necessary. Any fan trying to find Morris just needs to look for the player with wraps on his hands, cuts on his face and an occasional black eye, as Morris puts his body on the line every match in order to make an impact.
His abilities don’t end on the defensive side either. Morris has the ability to organize the attack and direct traffic once the Crew gets a little jumbled up through the use of his quick passing and sits atop the MLS in passing accuracy. He’s even put in 3 goals so far, scoring his first ever goal for the club in a 6-1 thrashing of Atlanta United. These talents have also been recognized by the United States Men’s National Team, as Morris has received 2 call ups to represent his nation this year.
In more attacking areas, Yaw Yeboah has taken the spot of Sands due to an ACL tear. Yeboah is not a natural at defending, just as Farsi has difficulties with his touches when attacking, but Yeboah has proved valuable in the attack. Alex Matan has returned from loan and has fit well in the squad since he’s been back. They join the club’s most high profile players, attacking mid Lucas Zelaryan and striker Cucho Hernandez in the attack.
The two might prove to be the most integral partnership for the team’s success this year. Although getting them both on the field at the same time this year has been difficult, there are certain things that are known about both.
Zelaryan loves to have the ball at his feet. A talented dribbler and a player that just seems to make goals happen, his capabilities have been on display for years in Columbus. The problem starting to arise is how he uses those skills.
Zelaryan has developed a tendency to start to force actions with the ball. Whether that’s being too possessive of the ball and trying to create with the dribble too much instead of the pass, or forcing shots in bad times or off of set pieces just because he’s been able to do so before.
Cucho Hernandez is similarly equipped. The young striker arrived in Columbus last summer after a season in the Premier League and immediately made an impact as a scoring machine. Columbus would give Hernandez the ball in tight situations and trust he would save the day. And for a decent stretch, he did.
Upon his arrival, there was an “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” approach. Need a goal? Give Cucho the ball.
This only lasted so long, and by season’s end, even Hernadez struggled to find net in the disjointed attack.
For the Crew to find some consistent success this season, the pair will have to showcase flexibility and both be willing to pass as much as shoot. With the Crew’s style of play—where possession is key—there’s no room for rushed or selfish decisions.
The stars can’t afford a Batman and Robin dynamic where one takes precedence over the over, but rather a Woody and Buzz Lightyear partnership, both sacrificing a little bit to lead the team in the right direction.
Coming off a putrid result, suffering a 2-3 loss in the Hell is Real Darby against FC Cincinnati, the Crew have to rebound from a rough stretch of form. Struggling to handle the press and making rushed passes into the attacking area has been a killer for the Black and Gold.
A full set of fixtures on the horizon with a packed MLS schedule and the higher rounds of the U.S. Open Cup should give Columbus the opportunity to work out the issues with Nancy’s system. If they can get back to defending home field and picking up points on the road, the Crew should expect a top four finish in the East, setting up home field advantage in at least one playoff game.
The Crew won’t have to wait long to try to get back on track, as the Black and Gold take the field on Wednesday, May 24 against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the U.S. Open Cup’s Round of 16 at 7 pm EST. The match can be viewed on the CBS Sports Golazo Network.