On Saturday night, the Columbus Crew went to Bank of America Stadium and suffered the team’s third loss of the 2023 Major League Soccer season, falling 1-0 to Charlotte FC. It was a tough match for the Black & Gold, facing a desperate Charlotte side that had just one win on the year coming into the match.
The situation was made more difficult when it was announced that captain and central midfielder Darlington Nagbe would not start the game, although he was on the bench. Then, less than 10 minutes into the game, starting left wing back Will Sands went down with an injury and had to be substituted. It was announced on Tuesday that Sands tore his ACL.
While it was not the result Columbus wanted from the road trip, there were still things to take away from the game. Let’s take a look at What We Learned.
Wilfried Nancy the disciplinarian?
It’s not completely clear why Nagbe was left on the bench for the start of the match. The veteran midfielder had started all but one of his games played since joining the Crew in 2020 and had only come off the bench five times prior since his rookie year in 2011. Given Nagbe wasn’t on the team’s availability report, an injury was not likely and Nagbe hasn’t dealt with any fitness issues this season.
Before the game, reporters were informed that Nagbe not starting was a “coach’s decision.” After the game, head coach Wilfried Nancy was asked about not starting Nagbe for the first time this year and responded, “Darlington knows why that changed.”
Reading between the lines and it appears this was a discipline issue. While clearly not one that resulted in Nagbe missing the game, he came off the bench in the 64th minute, something appears to have happened that resulted in Nancy deciding Nagbe did not deserve to start, something that affected his team.
Assuming this is correct, this is a statement by Nancy that no player can break the rules. Nancy, a first-year coach in Columbus, named Nagbe the team’s captain prior to the season, which spoke of what he saw from the player throughout preseason. But if Nagbe did violate any team rules, making an example, even if it is minor, early in the year sets the standard that no player can get away with anything.
This is an important moment for Nancy to establish himself as the true leader of the Crew and show that no player is bigger than the team, again, assuming this was a punishment for a violation of team rules.
The Crew needs Cucho back
Things were going well for the Black & Gold for the first few matches following Cucho Hernandez’s knee injury. Columbus scored 13 goals in the first four games the Designated Player striker missed. However, the goals have dried up over the last two matches where the Crew has scored just twice.
In the 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution, the Black & Gold struggled to create chances without the dynamic movement of Hernadez, along with attacking midfielders Lucas Zelarayan and Alexandru Matan, up top until the visitors went down to 10 men in the second half and still only got a late equalizer thanks to great vision by Zelarayan and New England failing to mark midfielder Sean Zawadzski in the penalty box.
Against Charlotte, Columbus again failed to get in good positions to score. The Crew had 10 shots — to Charlotte’s 11 — and only three on target. The Black & Gold has an expected goals 0.93 despite dominating possession.
Forward Christian Ramirez has played well in Hernandez’s absence but doesn’t offer the same movement or clinical finishing as the DP. Ramirez had two great chances in this game — one a header that went right to the goalkeeper and another shot that was hit well off frame despite a good look — and couldn’t convert either. While Hernandez failed to score in the three games he played this year, he almost certainly would have put one away given similar opportunities in this match.
Teams have realized that without Hernadez, Columbus struggles to break down a low block (even with Hernandez at times). Both the Revolution and Charlotte were able to take advantage of this by scoring first — again, due to missed chances — and it was difficult for the Crew to be as dangerous after going down 1-0.
The good news is Hernandez is on his way back from the knee injury, having returned to practice. While the team is careful about bringing the forward back too quickly, it would not be a surprise for Hernandez to be involved when Inter Miami comes to Lower.com Field on Saturday.
The confusing midfield situation
Without Nagbe from the start, Nancy went with his next-best duo of Aidan Morris and Zawadski as central midfielders. This made sense if Nagbe was unavailable to be in the starting 11. What didn’t make sense was the way Nancy deployed these two.
Instead of keeping Morris in his usual position where he is more of the roamer of the two central midfielders, Nancy asked the fourth-year professional to be the more disciplined of the two and sit in the center of the field. Zawadski was then asked to be more of the engine room, moving around the field to both disrupt attacks and help generate them.
Naturally, this is backward. While Crew fans didn’t see much of Zawadski last year, when they did, he was often the deepest of the midfielders paired with either Nagbe or Morris who was allowed to be a bit more creative offensively (Nagbe) or move around the field and bring energy (Morris).
Switching these two led to confusion and players not where they needed to be, particularly on the Charlotte goal. As the play began, Morris was the higher of the two midfielders, stepping up as he naturally would when the ball is at a defender’s feet. Yet, he should be deeper in playing the Nagbe role and working to get back. Neither midfield then is back when the cross comes into a wide open Karoll Swiderski in the penalty area. It’s a great finish from the attacking midfielder but could be prevented if the roles of the central midfielders fit their natural instincts.
When Nagbe came on for Zawadski in the 64th minute, the midfield was much more effective for the Black & Gold. Morris was allowed to get forward and Nagbe could play the deeper creator, while still pushing up because of the space the home side allowed. Morris’ attacking movement led to Columbus putting the ball in the net, although the play was called back for a narrow offside.
Obviously, any time a player like Nagbe comes out of the lineup, there will be a drop off, but some of this could have been avoided. If the captain has to miss time in the future, Zawadski should play as the holding midfielder where he is more comfortable and allow Morris to play with the freedom he typically showcases.