Darlington Nagbe - Columbus Crew SC - Close up
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Top Takeaways: On goal-line play, Nagbe’s brilliance and playmaker void | Steve Zakuani

It felt a bit closer to a normal MLS matchnight on Thursday night with three simultaneous games and there was plenty to digest between the six Eastern Conference teams in action:

Goal-line decision at Red Bull Arena

We’ll start with the talking point of the night: I may be in the minority here, but I agreed with referee Allen Chapman’s decision as soon as he made it.

The replay angles weren’t great but at least one of them convinced me that the ball did in fact cross the line, even if it was only by half an inch. Sean Johnson is a ‘keeper I like a lot, but I always get the feeling he has a big mistake in him and that was once again the case Thursday night.

Crew win the Porter way

The big result of the night belonged to league-leading Columbus, who kept rolling with a 3-0 win.

For a Caleb Porter team to be at its very best, a few things have to be present: (1) a commanding center back, (2) Darlington Nagbe in the midfield, (3) a true No. 10, and (4) a dynamic winger. After watching the Crew so far this season, the only one you can debate may have been missing was the dynamic winger. On Thursday, Derrick Etienne Jr. showed he can be a candidate to fill the role.

Etienne’s finish was excellent, but the play I liked most was when he drove inside and played a perfectly weighted pass for Luis Diaz that led to a shot on goal. Caleb likes wingers with the ability to come inside and to be playmakers, so he will have been thrilled with Etienne’s shift tonight.

“We were surprised we could get him,” Caleb Porter said postgame about his team’s ability to acquire Etienne in the offseason. “We thought two seconds about it and said ‘let’s get him.’ He’s an interesting player. You don’t get a chance to get a player like him for basically not much. With his profile -- he’s quick, he’s honest defensively he’s well-drilled in the Red Bulls system and he’s got a little creativity to him as well which we like. He still has to learn some things in our system. We want more on the ball and we ask our wingers to take up positions so we can keep the ball and create chances so there are more tactical things that our wingers need to learn … the way we curl up our wingers in some cases and create triggers. But it’s great for him to get a start and a goal. He’s been a nice addition.”

The 2020 Crew look really good and that’s mostly because of the form Nagbe is in. He’s not a great goalscorer but he’s certainly a scorer of great goals. The only player I’ve ever seen score a similar goal to the one he did vs. Chicago is Thierry Henry — that speaks for itself.

Darlington is someone I’ve known since he was 16. It can be hard to explain what makes him so good because the things he does, don’t fill up the stat sheet. But show me someone else who never loses the ball, can run past anyone when he wants, tracks back defensively, plays for the team and can produce the type of goal he did tonight. You can’t show me someone else because that person don’t exist.

NYCFC struggle to create

Long before Sean Johnson’s howler gifted the New York Red Bulls the lead in the Hudson River Derby, NYCFC should have been at least a goal or two up with two great looks from their striker Heber.

There’s a lot to like about Heber’s play so far this season as he does a good job of holding the ball up and bringing his teammates into the game with smart layoffs. But as nice as that is, a striker’s ultimate job is to score goals and Heber’s inability to hit the target from either of his two great looks in the first half overshadowed much of the good work he did for his team.

When a striker is high on confidence, he feels like every shot will be a goal. When a striker is lacking it, you get what we are seeing with Heber — someone who misses the target when it seems easier to hit it. To be clear, NYCFC’s attacking issues go much deeper than Heber — they’ve only scored two goals all season and only managed two shots on target tonight.

A case of the missing playmakers

Building your team around a true talisman who can unlock defenses by himself can yield amazing results (2016 Lodeiro comes to mind), but there is a downside to that approach: When your go-to creative guy is missing, you sometimes have to completely reimagine the way you plan to attack and that can be a huge challenge for teams that aren’t used to being in that position. Some teams manage better than others.

On Thursday night there were a few playmakers missing: Carles Gil (New England), Lucas Zelarayan (Columbus), Maxi Moralez (NYCFC) all sat out Thursday’s action and Kaku (RBNY) didn’t start, which RBNY manager Chris Armas said was part of the gameplan.

The Crew — Porter says Zelarayan was at 80 percent with a bum ankle — and the Revs both did a good job of plugging the holes left by Zelarayan and Gil. The Crew won 3-0, but the Revs were stuck at 0-0 against Philly. With solid play from Kelyn Rowe, Matt Polster and Gustavo Bou, the Revs didn’t struggle to create chances. In the case of NYCFC, it’s clear they do not have a plan B without Moralez and this has been painfully evident in the past.

Although manager Ronny Deila feels they can win without him, no one else comes close to matching his consistent decision making, final pass and creativity in the final third. Designated Players Jesus Medina and Alexandru Mitrita (in the second half) have to look in the mirror and accept that they did not do enough to help ease Maxi’s loss tonight.

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.