The Columbus Crew’s path to a potential return to the MLS Cup final appeared to clear up when the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference — the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC — were eliminated.
Unfortunately for the Crew, an unexpected opponent is threatening to end their title chase without so much as kicking a ball.
The Crew have reportedly had six first-team players test positive for COVID-19 ahead of Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinal against Nashville SC (8p.m. ESPN), casting doubt on whether the game will be played, and whether the Crew will have the necessary players to field a team capable of beating the surprising expansion side from Tennessee.
The Crew announced on Wednesday that four players had tested positive, with reports emerging later in the week stating that the total number had risen to six players.
Contending with Nashville SC would be challenging enough at full strength, but now Porter and his team will need to contend with what is sure to be a hit to his first-choice starting lineup.
We don’t know who will be unavailable for Sunday since the names of the players who have tested positive have not been made public, so for the purposes of previewing Sunday’s match we will operate as if the Crew will have all hands on deck.
Here is a closer look at this Eastern Conference semifinal:
The sides met just once in 2020, with the Crew posting a 2-0 victory at home on September 19. Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes provided the goals.
Players to Watch
The Argentinian playmaker is a magician in midfield, and his presence takes the Crew attack to an elite level among MLS offenses.
The German midfielder is not only a threat to set up teammates with killer passes, he is also capable of finishing plays off, as evidenced by him being Nashville’s leading goal-scorer during the season.
Matchup to Watch
GYASI ZARDES vs. WALKER ZIMMERMAN
The USMNT teammates are key to what their teams try to do, with Zardes providing the hold-up play and consistent finishing, while Zimmerman was the rock in the middle of Nashville’s stingy defense, with a season that saw him earn MLS Defender of the Year honors.
The Brazilian midfielder was instrumental to keeping the Crew attack humming even without Zelarayan, and in some ways he can be even more dangerous when the Crew has its full attack because he becomes that much more difficult to key on.
The Costa Rican winger is one of the most dangerous weapons in Gary Smith’s attack, but he could be even more important against a Crew side that will be without first-choice right back Harrison Afful, who is serving a red card suspension. Milton Valenzuela’s presence at left back should keep Nashville targeting the right side of the Crew defense, with Leal at the forefront of that assault.
How do we predict a match where one team is missing six players whose identities are still unknown? Good question. There are some absences that would clearly hurt more than others (namely key figures like Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes and Jonathan Mensah). If Caleb Porter is without any of those four, then beating Nashville will become infinitely more difficult.
The Crew’s personnel shouldn’t change Nashville’s game-plan, which should be to defend and counter, using an organized defensive set-up to frustrate the Crew’s creators.
Columbus does have the benefit of having played Nashville SC fairly recently, but plenty has changed in the two months since that previous meeting, and the current COVID-19 outbreak the Crew is enduring could very well have Nashville SC sitting as favorites by the time action kicks off at Mapfre Stadium.
As tough a task as the Crew is facing, they do have an MLS-Cup winning coach in Caleb Porter, who does have a strong bench to pull from, and a wealth of playoff experience to tap into in order to continue his run at a second MLS Cup title, both for himself and for the Crew. It won’t be easy though, not against a veteran Nashville side which boasts its own MLS Cup-winning coach, and the confidence gained from back-to-back playoff wins.