On Sunday vs. NYCFC, supporters saw exactly why the Columbus Crew (1-0-0, 3 pts.) made the personnel decisions it did during the offseason, and the stats back it up.
Darlington Nagbe was brought on for his reliability and link-up play; the 29-year-old held an astonishing 95.1-percent passing accuracy in the opponent's half and did not give a pass away for 75 straight minutes on Sunday.
"For a player to go through a game and not give a pass away for 75 minutes is unbelievable," said Head Coach Caleb Porter. "I mean that’s what he brings, he’s a possession midfielder, he’s the link player, he’s the guy that everything is going to go through in the midfield and he’ll run the show and he’ll be on the ball more than anybody and he’ll help us keep rhythm and tempo."
Vito Wormgoor is a veteran centerback with prior experience in a physical league; the 6'2" defender totaled a team-high four interceptions and six aerial duels, winning four of them.
"Vito was a complete warrior [on Sunday] and I love that we got a clean sheet," Porter said. "That’s going to be a point of emphasis this year, to be tougher defensively closing out games. Late in the game here he is, getting kicked in the knee, limping, and still heading balls out and, just the confidence that he has overall, really kind of just permeates up through the team."
After the match, Wormgoor said that description is fitting.
"I like to play a little bit physical," Wormgoor said. "I think it compares a little bit with where I played the last few years in Norway. You had also big strikers and those big strong guys, and I like to fight, you know? And sometimes you go a little bit extra."
Worth noting, Wormgoor received his first MLS yellow card within the opening 10 minutes.
As for Lucas Zelarayan, he is exactly what Porter said he was -- a game-changer; the Argentine made space in the tightest of pockets and buried a left-footed shot into the upper 90 for the game-winner.
"I’ve been telling you guys that he’s a special player. I’ve seen it every day. He’s a difference-maker, and that’s why we brought him [to Columbus]," Porter said.
Zelarayan found himself in good spots, Porter said, and he expects the team to continue getting better at finding him in situations that few can pull off.
"Part of that is just the chemistry continuing to build and understanding that you can play him in really hard spots in between the lines and when he gets in there, he’s really clever," Porter said. "He knows how to work himself out of those spots and then create chances, and I thought he showed that on the day, and was a big reason we won the game."
And though he's not a newcomer, Milton Valenzuela reminded Crew fans - and even Porter himself - of what he brings to the table. The 21-year-old led the team in touches (106), possession gained (12), and total passes in the opponent's half (49) on Sunday.
"He’s an unbelievable player," Porter said. "I mean, I didn’t get to coach him last year, I watched him from afar prior to that. Massive impact for us, both sides of the ball. He’s even better than I thought he was. This guy, he’s a top, top-class leftback."
With six days to prep, the Crew return to action on Saturday, March 7 against the reigning MLS Cup champions, Seattle Sounders FC. Kickoff is scheduled for 10 p.m. ET.