Caleb Porter - closeup - 2020 opener
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Can Columbus Crew SC avoid NYCFC "trap", and will Darlington Nagbe play No. 10 role again?

For Caleb Porter, it's not so much that his team's record start reminds him of New York City FC's run to the 2019 Eastern Conference regular season crown. It's that NYCFC's struggles so far are reminiscent of his own in his first year in charge of Columbus Crew SC last year.

Seeing how his own team has grown from that adversity, taking 16 points out of 18 possible so far this season, is enough to know NYCFC's breakthrough under first-year coach Ronny Deila could be just around the corner, perhaps even as early as the teams' meeting on Monday night at Red Bull Arena (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US and DAZN in Canada).

"I think it’s one of those, when you look at the team, you don’t look at the results, because that would be a trap," Porter said. "If you look at the results, you’re going to think it’s an easy game. If you look at the players, and what they did last year with the same players basically, they’re as capable as anybody in the league. They’ve got the talent. They’ve got the players. I think they’ve been unlucky. They’ve lost games 1-0. And they’ve just not gotten that breakthrough.

"When you don’t get that breakthrough … we were in that situation last year."

Indeed, Columbus lost eight of those 1-0 games in 2019. By the time they righted the ship to go 5W-2L-6D over their last 13 matches, it was too late to climb into the postseason places.

Four of NYCFC's five losses in 2020 have also come by a 1-0 scoreline. Manager Ronny Deila is undeterred: He feels that NYCFC if the team can stay on the front foot, press high and maintain an offensive mindset they can get results against any opponent in MLS:

"When we play good we have beaten Toronto. We had an OK game against Miami and we've played really, really equal with all of them and had more chances in almost eery game," Deila said in the pregame. "The small details win every game. But for us, it's more about the mentality. We need to attack the game in a more offensive way than we looked against Red Bulls."

"We're not used to playing poorly or losing games. It's something new for us," said NYCFC defender Ronald Matarrita. "We're giving 100 percent to be able to get back to the team that we've always been: a winning team and a team that everyone's afraid of."

Playmakers in doubt

But the Crew are not just any other opponent. They are the league leaders heading into Week 7 and they are off to their best six-game start in club history after pulling off their latest victory despite the ankle-injury absence of playmaker Lucas Zelarayan

"He’s been out for a couple weeks," Porter said. "So I’m not sure if he’ll be available next game. It might be tight, or if he’ll play some minutes. It will depend on tomorrow’s session."

Crew SC won't be the only ones without their primary playmaker. Deila also indicated that Maxi Moralez's status is also undetermined: "It is not 100 percent sure. We don't know yet."

Even without the Argentine, the Crew pulled off a 3-0 home win against Chicago Fire FC in their first match back at home last week. While Pedro Santos began the match in Zelarayan's No. 10 role, much as he filled in last season for then-injured Federico Higuain, Darlington Nagbe moved into it in the second half, helping the Crew put away the game with two late goals, including his own sensational strike.

With both men playing nearly the full match and Zelarayan likely not fit enough to start, Porter said Nagbe playing that role again to start is an option.

"Possibly," Porter said. "Obviously it worked on the day. I always say that doesn’t mean it will work another day. Because every game is different. Every opponent is different.

"This window is different because we are even thinner than we were last game in terms of players that played. With Lucas out, you have to think about who’s going to play the No. 10 to start, what’s the best way to go. But I always like to think about what are your moves that you can make. And sometimes the best thing to do is to start a certain way knowing you have a counter move you can make when you decide to do it."


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