Throughout the MLS is Back Tournament, ColumbusCrewSC.com will provide daily updates on the team during their time in Orlando, Fla.
July 27: Crew supporters saw Milton Valenzuela for the first time in MLS is Back last Tuesday, and though fans may have wanted to see more than 45 minutes vs. Atlanta, the leftback said he and the staff are taking a progressive approach.
"I really want to get back out there and show what I’m capable of, but at the same time, I’ve got to be smart and cautious so that I can perform at one hundred percent and be able to help the team accordingly. After speaking with the coaching and technical staff, we decided that we wanted to take a progressive approach so that when we go back out there it was when I was ready to do so."
Valenzuela totaled 21 passes on 36 touches and delivered where it counted with the game-winning assist vs. ATL.
Speaking of delivering, Valenzuela's countryman and teammate Lucas Zelarayan's two goals and assist have helped lead the club to three straight wins, as the Crew is the only team to remain perfect in MLS is Back play.
But now, Zelarayan, who is no stranger to high-pressure stakes as an accomplished veteran in both LigaMX and Concacaf Champions League play, said Tuesday's match is a situation where results come down to the smallest of details.
"We have a very hard game on Tuesday which is going to take place in the knockout round, which is something where the little details matter. It comes down to who’s paying the most attention, so you have to be careful and take everything step-by-step."
With the regular-season portion of the tournament filed and put away, the next prize on the pedestal is a spot in the Concacaf Champions League.
To attain that, it starts by going 1-0 on Tuesday.
"It’s an objective that we have as a team. It’s been 10 years since we’ve played in that tournament, and we want to be back in it," Zelarayan said on earning a CCL berth. "It would gain us a lot of prestige because it’s a top tournament that’s watched by many all over the world, which a lot of great teams are featured, so we want to be a part of that again."
July 26: Behind only Jonathan Mensah, Aboubacar Keita has played the second-most minutes at centerback for the Crew during the MLS is Back Tournament. In fact, he's started five of the last 10 matches dating back to 2019, and Tuesday's win vs. ATL was not his first appearance nor his first full-match start against the Five Stripes.
Following a training session over the weekend, Keita told ColumbusCrewSC.com that he knows what the players and coaching staff expect of him and, overall, supporters continue to see a picture of solid overall play from the 20-year-old this season.
“To be honest, I’ve played against Atlanta so I knew what I was expecting, and in the game, it was just ‘be comfortable.’ … The guys trusted me, no one treated me like a younger player, so I just went into the game and knew what I was expected to do.”
In addition to playing in his second shutout of the season as part of a 1-0 win over Atlanta, the Homegrown Player led the game in blocks (2), totaled two interceptions, made one successful tackle, and won five of six duels (83.33 percent), as he now ranks second in Major League Soccer overall in duel success (73.33 percent) among players with at least 10 duels on the season.
As far as his distribution, Keita completed 32 of 34 passes against ATL. Among MLS players with a minimum of 250 minutes played this year, Keita ranks second overall in passing accuracy at 93.90 percent, only behind teammate Darlington Nagbe (95.56 percent)
Including the 73 minutes played in the July 11 opener vs. FC Cincinnati, Keita has logged 163 minutes in the last three matches, not including stoppage time, of course, and the amount of usage, he said, is important for him and other younger teammates going forward.
“Coming down to the tournament, we were told we should be expected to play and we should use the advantage here to tell a fight for playing time when we go back for the regular season. So I think the advantage we’ve been getting here has been helpful towards getting regular minutes, and with Aidan and [Sebastian] getting some minutes here, that brings that confidence up so when we go back home they’ll start fighting for regular minutes too.”
July 25: Luis Diaz played the full 90 minutes in the Crew's most recent 1-0 win over Atlanta United. With his speed, the Costa Rican winger is always a threat on the offensive end, but also notable is how his pace and tenacity translates to the defensive end, particularly when the Crew's counter-press is cued.
Following training, ColumbusCrewSC.com asked the 21-year-old about the team's counter-press and being on the front foot, even without the ball.
"I think it’s a part of the teamwork. I do my part to help the team. We do it in training and we try to do it in games as quickly as possible. Press the opponent, win the ball and attack."
Duel success is key to the high-pace style of Columbus, and of any team to have competed in the MLS is Back Tournament, the Crew ranks second this season in duel success rate at 54.23 percent.
As evidenced by the results, Diaz said that that pressure has helped lead to wins.
"I think we’ve done [the counter-press] well. It has been a fundamental part of our success so we hope to continue doing that."
July 24: The Crew hit the training grounds again, as some notable news took place on and off the pitch.
For starters, Darlington Nagbe was named to the MLSsoccer.com Team of the Week for the third consecutive week following a literally perfect passing game vs. his former team, Atlanta United. The midfielder went 43-for-43 in 80 minutes of play.
Team-wise, the Crew jumped up six spots to No. 2 overall in the MLSsoccer.com Power Rankings, of course, due to the fact that the Black & Gold were the only team to remain perfect in the MLS is Back Group Stages, earning nine out of a possible nine points.
On the field, Lucas Zelarayan brought out some of his Argentine magic with a 'lil Maradona during training.
July 23: Following a solid gym session on Wednesday, it was Golf Day for the players on Thursday, as some showed their game on the course and driving range.
🗣 Fore! pic.twitter.com/PazKCPMQYd— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) July 25, 2020
Additionally, ColumbusCrewSC.com spoke to Crew SC's Player Care Coordinator to discuss how players' families and loved ones at home are being taken care of while the team continues its stay in Orlando with the next match set for July 28 vs. Minnesota United.
July 22: To no surprise, the team's cohesiveness has proved to be one the many reasons for Crew SC's success throughout the MLS is Back Tournament.
The Crew has posted three clean sheets, but the defense starts with the forwards as much as the offense starts with the backline.
In fact, on the most recent episode of The Breakdown, Crew TV analyst Jordan Angeli takes a look at the effectiveness of the Crew's counter-press in being able to regain possession quickly after losing in the opponent's third.
Goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who came to the Crew in February from San Jose, said his ability to fill in and seemingly not miss a beat is a function of the communication and coordination from the guys in front of him.
"I’ve got so much confidence in the guys in front of me, I mean Jonathan’s such a leader back there. His communication’s just so good, he just takes charge of everything. Same with Harry [Harrison Afful] on the right, Bouba [Aboubacar Keita] in the middle, Milton [Valenzuela] and Hector [Jimenez] on the left, communication’s so good, the movement between them is so good. They coordinate with the guys in front of them. Darlington [Nagbe] and Artie [Artur] get us out of trouble, we can find them whenever we need to."
Following three straight shutout wins to capture the top spot in Group E, the Crew awaits to see who it will play in the Round of 16. The match will take place on July 28 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
July 20: Josh Williams and Pedro Santos both started in the Crew's latest win over the New York Red Bulls.
The start marked the first appearance of the year for Williams, while Santos logged his third start of the season and first in the MLS is Back Tournament.
In speaking with ColumbusCrewSC.com after training today, the duo touched on the current depth on the roster as well as other aspects of the squad that have stood out in particular.
“We are a team with a huge character. We are ready every game to fight and to play," said Santos, who did well to draw out Red Bulls defender and U.S. Men's National Team player Aaron Long in order to open up the scoring lane for Gyasi Zardes' game-opening goal.
One of the big question marks heading into Thursday's match revolved around what type of rotation would Crew fans see from the club. Turns out, while RBNY started the same group from Matchday 1, the Crew's ability to put in five new starters and sub accordingly paid off.
As Santos put it, Head Coach Caleb Porter is giving every player the confidence to play freely within the confines of the overall system.
“Everybody is ready to play and anyone can come and help the team because Caleb pushes every player. He gives a lot of confidence to the players. He lets us play free in the strategy, but when we have the ball we can decide. So for the players, it’s important to feel the confidence from the coaching.”
On the heels of Vito Wormgoor's ankle injury, Williams started alongside Jonathan Mensah at left centerback.
The 11-year MLS veteran noted how long he has been playing with a handful of his current teammates, such as Hector Jimenez who started at leftback on Thursday, and how that familiarity has paid off.
To that point, Williams said that what stands out, in particular, is the job Porter, President & GM Tim Bezbatchenko, and Technical Director & VP of Soccer Operations Pat Onstad have done in putting a good group of guys together.
“I think what stands out is how great of a team Caleb, Tim [Bezbatchenko], and Pat Onstad have put together and the type of locker room they have formed here. I think that’s huge going forward. … Without that I think it’d be a struggle, individually and collectively.”
Going into Tuesday's match, it's less about the opponent and more about committing to the game plan, Williams said.
If that happens, everything will fall into place naturally.
“We feel confident that if we execute our game plan and listen to the coaches and just go out and do what we’ve been doing the last two games, we’ll come away with three points and have a chance of finishing with nine points, which was the goal coming here.”
July 19: Just two more days away until the Crew's final match of the group stages in the MLS is Back Tournament, as Columbus has already sealed a spot in the Round of 16.
Though it feels like we are still getting over the club's impressive 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on Thursday, it's another short turnaround as the team sets its sights on three points vs. Atlanta United on Tuesday night [8 p.m. ET / ESPN2 / TUDN / 97.1 The Fan & ColumbusCrewSC.com].
Artur, who subbed on in the 57th minute for Sebastian Berhalter vs. RBNY, spoke after Sunday's training session on the depth the Crew displayed in the win earlier this week.
"I think that we have [a lot of] depth on our team. Everyone who needed to step up did, and they did well and did a good job in the last game."
Finishing in first-place in Group E means the Crew would face the second-place team from Group D (RSL, MIN, SKC, COL). Finishing in second-place means Columbus would face the first-place team from Group F (POR, LAFC, HOU, LAG).
With six points in two consecutive shutouts, the club is in as good a position as possible to make it three straight positive results, said Artur.
"We are in a great position now. Everybody is in a position to help the team and I think it’s very good for the club."
July 18: Midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr. earned his first start for the Crew in Thursday's 2-0 win, and did so against his former club in the New York Red Bulls.
As Etienne Jr. said, it's simply the nature of things for players to move on, so the midfielder was first and foremost happy to be on the team that, as he said, commanded play.
"It was a great feeling. I'm happy to be on the team. I think we played a very good game. I think we were able to dictate play and create a lot of chances."
As a starter on the left wing, Etienne Jr. played the full 90 minutes, although it was more like 108 minutes if you include both first- and second-half stoppage time allotments.
On the night, the 23-year-old logged a co-team-high three interceptions to go with five recoveries, in addition to providing the assist on Lucas Zelarayan's goal.
The assist marked Etienne's first for the club since signing with the Black & Gold back in early February.
The midfielder mentioned how he should have tallied his first Crew goal as well, but said it's important to take the three points regardless and now keep the momentum going against Atlanta United on Tuesday, July 21.
"I was happy to get my first start and help the team with getting an assist, so hopefully we can keep this momentum going and close out with a good game and a good win against Atlanta."
Kickoff on Tuesday is set for 8 p.m. ET. The match will be shown on ESPN2, TUDN, & TSN, as well as the TUDN App and TSN App. Fans can also listen to English and Spanish radio streams here.
July 15: In trying to maintain the club's "business-like" approach to these group-stage/regular-season matches, Head Coach Caleb Porter wanted to ensure fans that the players are maintaining a level-headed approach, and discuss how Thursday's match represents a new and different test for this group.
"I’ve always felt that winning teams, they don’t celebrate wins because they expect them. If you’re too high or too low, that’s not a great mentality. You don’t want a rollercoaster. You want a real business-like team that enjoys the wins, but they’re not surprised and they move on to next one. If they’re surprised, it’s when they lose. I think that’s the key. This group, I think, when you prepare well and you know that you’re a good team, I go and I remind them every day that they have to show up. The best team doesn’t win. It’s the team that plays best. They know they have to show up and make plays for 90 minutes. If they don’t, they’ll lose in this league. But they also know if they show up, they’ll have a good chance at winning. And I think it’s my job to push them and challenge them and make sure that they’re prepared the right way and I keep them focused, but also it’s their job to hold themselves to high standard and hold each other to a high standard, so I think it was pretty calm in the locker room after the game. There were times last year when we would win games and it was relief, and it should never be that way. I think this year it’s expected."
For a different look into #CLBvRBNY, listen & subscribe to the Inside The Crew podcast with Neil Sika & Jordan Angeli as they speak with Matt Harmon, the voice of the Red Bulls, in anticipation of Thursday's 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff.
July 14: The players had to cut training short today due to weather, while MLSsoccer.com nominated four members of the Crew for Team of the Week following Round 1 of the MLS is Back Tournament.
This afternoon, Caleb Porter got the chance to speak to members of the media ahead of the Crew's match vs. the New York Red Bulls on July 16.
As part of the call, Porter listed a few factors that went Columbus's way in Round 1, including being able to keep the players' loads at a less than 100-percent rate throughout the majority of the match, in addition to being able to sub out certain players.
That said, it's still about putting out the best lineup to win, Porter said, as the clash with the Red Bulls will be much different than with Cincinnati.
"[The New York Red Bulls] are going to try to disrupt us. They are going to try to make it about the Red Bulls. They are going to want to play the game on their terms. Good teams want to do what they do well and play the game on their terms, and I think we are the same. So when you put their team and our team together, there’s going to be a clash of styles and philosophies. It will be about execution, but I think there’s a certain element when you play New York that you have to be up for, mentality-wise, physicality-wise, and we’ve done a good job in the past of being up for that."
July 13: Homegrown Players Sebastian Berhalter and Aidan Morris each made their debut on Saturday, with Berhalter recalling it as a "really special" moment in front of his uncle and father while Morris mentioned how it was unique to play in his home state of Florida as well as at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex where he played as a kid.
Check out Tuesday's article for more from these two players on their debut.
July 12: Gyasi Zardes & Lucas Zelarayan spoke alongside Caleb Porter immediately after yesterday's 4-0 win over FC Cincinnati, and the players recovered with a pool session on Sunday.
Pool day 🏊♂️ pic.twitter.com/rWr64BT9NG— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) July 13, 2020
July 10: "I’m excited to be a part of it and looking forward to continuing the winning tradition."
Darlington Nagbe is about to experience his first #HellisReal match. Though the atmosphere won't be the same as at MAPFRE Stadium, fans can watch together at the Live Virtual Fan Experience event or at the Easton Drive-In Watch Party.
In case you need a refresher, here are the highlights from the Crew's 3-1 win in Cincinnati last summer.
July 9: T-minus two days till #MLSisBack for the Crew. Ahead of Saturday's match, Jonathan Mensah and Darlington Nagbe spoke on the upcoming match and Lucas Zelarayan brought out some flair on the training pitch.
July 8: Today after training, team captain Jonathan Mensah spoke with reporters ahead to the Crew's July 11 match vs. FC Cincinnati, and was asked about his approach to leadership during this particular time.