Columbus Crew have a new coach and a new plan, but a lot of the same players that helped them to a playoff run in 2018. However, a few of those players will be missing when former Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter brings his squad to Philly on March 23.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder Wil Trapp, and striker Gyasi Zardes were all called up to the US Men’s National Team, and it’s no surprise given that the USMNT is led by former Crew coach Gregg Berhalter.
So the Union get a 2-0-1 Crew side missing three starters, but that doesn’t mean they can expect an easy matchup. Columbus has depth across the pitch, with veteran Joe Bendik able to step in for Steffen, Ricardo Clark an option in midfield, and Patrick Mullins likely to slot in up top.
The ability to slot in two field players that spent last season with the club points to a big strength for the Crew, and one reason they opted for Caleb Porter as coach. Porter has preserved many of the ideas that Berhalter put in place while updating others. For instance, Gaston Sauro and Jonathan Mensah remain two of the league’s most on-the-ball center backs, and Columbus remains, overall, committed to patient buildups (though perhaps not to the same structured extreme to which Berhalter took them). In contrast, Porter has made his adjustments further up the pitch. In the opening matches of the season, Federico Higuain has spent time linking play through midfield, finding wingers near the touchlines rather than in the channels where they all but resided under Berhalter. This takes some of the distributional burden off of Wil Trapp, but it has yet to result in a more dynamic attack.
That attack will be the biggest question mark Columbus brings to town on Saturday. Through three matches, they are averaging just under 10 shots per match, and that just isn’t enough given that two of those games have been at home (does playing Red Bull at home pull on those numbers a bit? Maaaybe…). A positive for the Crew, though, is that Patrick Mullins may be a better fit for Porter’s system than he was for Berhalter’s. Mullins can hold the ball up, spread play wide, and crash the box, and in doing so create space for Higuain behind him.
The Crew have gone through some changes this offseason, but with a solid coach and very little turnover they remain stout defensively, and that means they will be a difficult opponent to face at home.
Porter brings his Crew to Philadelphia’s Talen Energy Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 23.