Three wins from three games at the MLS is Back Tournament and top of the Supporter's Shield standings, Columbus Crew SC have an argument to be the best team in Major League Soccer right now, which is a far cry from a 2019 season that saw the team finish 10th in the Eastern Conference and miss the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
It started with a 1-0-1 start back in March and they’ve picked up where they left off in Orlando. Crew SC are the only team to secure maximum points and not concede during the group stage and they did so with the best goal differential (+7) in their three contests.
So what's behind the resurgence for Columbus, which take on Minnesota United Tuesday (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada) in the Round of 16? Caleb Porter has understandably received a lot of the credit, but there’s also the new-look midfield led by the dynamic tandem of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan.
Zelarayan, who arrived from Tigres UANL in December, has three goals and two assists already, including goals in back-to-back Group E wins over FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls.
Nagbe, who reunited with his former Portland Timbers boss in Porter, has completed 98 percent of his passes in Orlando and is also the only player in the tournament to attempt six or more dribbles past defenders and complete them all.
Full Extratime interview with Jonathan Mensah
Jonathan Mensah on where this Columbus team ranks against past clubs | Extratime
“They’re great players on the ball. Sometimes we see most of their qualities on the ball, but their movements off the ball is on another level,” Crew SC captain Jonathan Mensah said on Extratime presented by Continental. “To have these kind of players on your team, it kind of makes things look easier, but obviously we’re working all the time in training so we know when they move here, we play the ball here and they make our job so easy.”
While Zelarayan and Nagbe are two of the club’s biggest new additions, Mensah is part of the old guard. Now in his fourth year in Columbus, the standout center back noted the differences, and similarities, between some of the other Crew SC sides he’s played on since arriving ahead of the 2017 season.
“It feels different in terms of the game plan, the coaches obviously and some of the players,” Mensah said. “But the objective is the same — to be able to keep possession and do it in the opponent’s half, create chances and get some goals.”
While Mensah locks things down defensively, Gyasi Zardes has scored at a regular clip since arriving from the LA Galaxy before the 2018 season. The USMNT forward has 36 regular-season goals in 66 games for the Crew.
His strike rate on game day is clear, but Mensah said a big assist goes to their competitive nature at the training ground.
“I have to make sure I put him in my pocket,” Mensah said with a laugh. “If he can beat me, then I’m sure he can beat any defender in the league. I’m the best so I show him in training, if he can beat me, then he can beat anyone out there. I always kind of push him and he pushes me as well. It’s always good to have healthy competition in practice.”