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Three questions with Massive Report to preview the Columbus Crew SC

Columbus is leading the league right now in the standings.

MLS: FC Dallas at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

As a game day approaches tomorrow for FC Dallas, we’ve brought in fellow SBN blog Massive Report to help give us a preview of the Columbus Crew SC. Big thanks to Patrick Murphy for helping us out on this one.

BDS: Caleb Porter had a pretty rough first year in Columbus but 2020 has been drastically different. What has been the biggest change that has pushed the Crew to the top of the standings?

MR: There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is he got “his guys” on the roster. The long answer is, well, longer.

There was a thought that because Caleb Porter and the Crew’s last head coach, Gregg Berhalter, both played similar 4-2-3-1 formations and liked their teams to possess the ball and build out of the back that it would be an easy transition from one to the other. It was not. It turns out that Berhalter and Porter players don’t necessarily fit the two coaches’ very different approach to coaching.

So Porter had to clean house. I think the Crew had something like seven players leave the club and seven players join last summer. That was the beginning of a mini rebuild that actually saw the team end the year on a pretty good run of form. It was just too deep to dig out of the hole that was the first half of the season.

The Black & Gold also lacked much in the way of depth last year. When the injury bug hit, specifically the ACL tear for Federico Higuain, the team couldn’t recover. At fullback, for instance, Columbus started Connor Maloney, a former forward at Penn State who was much more of a Gregg Berhalter depth player than a Caleb Porter one.

It also helped that Porter is working with a bigger bank account than Berhalter ever did, thanks to the ownership takeover by the Haslam family (owners of the Cleveland Browns). While Berhalter was able to get the best out of bargains, so to speak, Porter wanted talent similar to what he had in Portland. He’s now added that in players like Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe.

I also think it should be noted that Porter has done a great job coaching this team this year, especially given everything that’s gone on. This team has really stuck together and bought into what he’s selling, and it’s reflected, not only with the on-field play, but with the results.

BDS: The Crew’s defense has been impressive this year, how have they emerged as one of the more underrated groups in the league in this area?

MR: Jonathan Mensah. After being error-prone early in his MLS career, the Ghanian international has quietly turned into one of the best, if not the best, center backs in the league. He is dominant in the penalty box, a leader of the backline and is no longer making silly passes and missing on tackles. He has become the player that played in two World Cups the Crew thought the team was getting in 2017.

In addition, Eloy Room has filled the Zack Steffen void well in goal. He is calm and collected in the net. Harrison Afful, known for his attack, has been solid defensively, as has Milton Valenzuela on the left. Veteran Josh Williams has stepped in for the injured Vito Wormgoor and has perhaps his best MLS season to date. And that the guys who have stepped in on the backline — second-year defender Aboubacar Keita, as well Chris Cadden and Hector Jimenez at fullbacks — have done their job and you have a pretty good back four.

Mostly though, it has been a team effort. The Black & Gold aren’t just defending as a backline, but as a full 11 players, starting with the press of Gyasi Zardes up top. The team committed to counter-pressing and swarming to the ball in certain situations, and often that has snuffed out any attacks even before it reaches the back four.

BDS: Gyasi Zardes looks to be enjoying a career year, what has been the biggest change in him this season that is helping him score at the rate that he is?

MR: I wouldn’t say there’s been a big change in Zardes. In his first two seasons in Columbus, Zardes had 32 goals in 61 games, so he’s been pretty good. Now nine goals in 13 games in 2020 is obviously a higher goals per game average, but I don’t think that’s due to any major change.

Porter did challenge Zardes before the season to be among the league leaders in goals going forward. He believed it was in Zardes to be in the conversation in MLS. Perhaps that added a little motivation for the U.S. forward.

Ultimately, though I think this has always been there for Zardes. When he is playing consistently as a No. 9 on a team that creates chances, he scores goals (you can argue about other areas of his game, especially at a higher level, if you want). This year, playing with Zelarayan, Nagbe, Pedro Santos and others, there are a number of chance creators around him and he is simply taking advantage of his opportunities.