It's on to Phase 2 for the Crew

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew forward Gyasi Zardes (11) heads the ball against Chicago Fire midfielder Gaston Gimenez (30) during the first half at Soldier Field in Chicago.

So far, MLS has managed to keep its season up and running since returning from a four-month, coronavirus-induced hiatus. After the monthlong MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando kickstarted things over the summer, the tightly compacted Phase 1 schedule — which saw teams playing six matches in about three weeks — went smoothly, with no matches derailed by COVID-19 outbreaks. 

It went especially smoothly for the Columbus Crew, which maintain the best record in the league (7-1-3, good for 24 points and pole position in the Supporters’ Shield race) and have allowed only four goals in 11 matches. Phase 2 kicks off Saturday, Sept. 19 at Mapfre Stadium, where, for the second straight home contest, a 1,500-capacity crowd will be allowed to attend in socially distanced fashion.

The Crew’s opponent is Nashville SC, the new expansion team whose yellow color palette has tweaked more than a few Columbus fans. Because the current Crew front office makes it a point to be tuned in to the supporter culture surrounding their club, they announced Thursday night that Columbus will wear “the original gold” versus Nashville, touting their signature hue as “often imitated, NEVER duplicated.”

The Crew is coming off one of its rockier performances of 2020, a 2-2 draw in Chicago that saw Columbus fall behind by two goals before staging a late comeback. It speaks to just how strong the Crew’s results have been this year that clinching a road point in dramatic fashion against the rival Fire constitutes a low point. “We’re not gonna overcorrect, but we definitely looked at it,” Head Coach Caleb Porter said in an online press conference Thursday.

Both Columbus goals in Chicago involved Gyasi Zardes. The U.S. men’s national team forward has been on a roll this season, notching eight goals, including two off the bench at home against FC Cincinnati just days after his wife gave birth. Among MLS players he trails only LAFC’s Diego Rossi, who has bagged 10. 

Against the Fire, Zardes sent a header careening off teammate Fatai Alashe’s skull and into the net in the 68th minute. “You can call it stealing a goal, but I just call it anticipating where the ball’s gonna be,” Alashe joked Thursday. Zardes then sent a shot past goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth in minute 88 to complete the comeback. 

Recently acquired Crew midfielder Emmanuel Boateng, who once played alongside Zardes with the LA Galaxy, said the striker was impressive back then but is operating on a higher level than he’s ever seen. “His movement is much better now,” Boateng said. “He’s improved as a player. He knows how to manipulate a defense to find pockets.”

Surprisingly, Columbus has enjoyed all this success with some of its best players sidelined. Porter said high-profile offseason pickups Lucas Zelarayán and Darlington Nagbe were both active in practice this week and may or may not see playing time Saturday. With 12 matches left before the playoffs, Porter is hoping his team can start to settle into a consistent starting lineup rather than the constant shuffling that has been necessitated by injuries. “As we get later in the year, we want more continuity in those things,” he said. However, he said the lineup shifts aren’t all bad: “I think it’s helping us a bit now because we’re unpredictable.”

The Nashville match isn’t the only event going down at Mapfre this weekend. Friday afternoon the Crew is holding a “steel beam topping out” ceremony for the OhioHealth Performance Center, the glitzy new training facility that’s launching at the Mapfre site when the team’s new Downtown stadium opens next summer. Friday’s event will commemorate the final steel beam being placed in the construction process. When the Performance Center was announced back in February, President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko called it a key factor in wooing top-level talent to Columbus and turning the Crew into an internationally significant club. “We’re competing globally,” Bezbatchenko said. “It’s not just about beating that team down the road.”