Can Columbus Crew use the new stadium to earn points with key players?

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The challenge for the Crew this month will be to stay comfortably within striking distance of the seeds in the East. A number of critical players are injured or on international duty in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, depleting the roster in key positions.

Behind a boisterous section of supporters troubling the opponent, the first of six games in July – a 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution’s first place in the opening game at Lower.com Field – was a good start for a team that will have to use its new advantage on the pitch until it recovers some of the best players.

“It’s among the best in the world,” said coach Caleb Porter. “It is perhaps one of the loudest. They are certainly the loudest 20,000 I have ever heard. We are going to win a lot of games at this stadium.

With no clear solution from the forward until Gyasi Zardes returns from the United States Men’s National Team or Bradley Wright-Phillips from injury, and a lack of depth in midfield, Porter has to strike a delicate balance between keeping the guys fresh and making sure there is enough talent in every game to get results.

At winger, Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Alex Matan are the only options with Kevin Molino and Derrick Etienne Jr at the Gold Cup with Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti, respectively. In central midfielder, Liam Fraser was called up to the Canadian team. That leaves Darlington Nagbe, Perry Kitchen and Marlon Hairston – two players who are recovering from long injuries – and rookie Isaiah Parente who has limited experience.

Hairston hadn’t started an MLS game in that position until Saturday. There is no timeline for Artur’s return from a chronic hip injury.

Santos and Diaz were listed as questionable ahead of the game. Santos played the entire 90 minutes, registering three shots and two assists. Diaz made his first start after missing three games. He was dangerous throughout the match but still lacks quality in scoring chances.

Matan looked sharp again on the bench and almost scored the game-winning goal against the Revolution, but was cleared from the line by defender Andrew Farrell. He and Hairston will likely soon be asked to start over and possibly play 90 minutes.

Porter can no longer afford to hurt himself. Milton Valenzuela’s hamstring injury in the first half against New England will complicate his use of Santos, who played well at left-back but can’t really afford to leave the winger spot.

The most immediate concern is what to do without a real attacker. Zardes has scored four goals in his last five games and may have played his best game on Saturday. For a team that has only scored eight goals, plus three own goals, its absence will be felt.

Columbus Crew midfielder Luis Diaz (12) dribbles past New England Revolution forward DeJuan Jones (24) during the second half of the inaugural match at Lower.com Field in Columbus on Saturday, July 3, 2021. The Crew tied the Revolution 2-2.

“We know things like this (having players out) are going to happen,” Diaz said through a club interpreter. “It means the rest of us have to step up and do our part. It’s going to be tough, but this is where we work, we are a team.

Unless the United States surprisingly reach the Gold Cup final, Zardes will be out until August 1. The group stage will end on July 20. If Trinidad, Canada, Haiti or goalkeeper Eloy Room, Curaçao didn’t advance to the quarter-finals, they could only miss three more games.

The group stage schedule includes a road game at FC Cincinnati and home games against Nashville SC and New York City FC – one point back and one point ahead of the Crew, respectively. Then the Crew is at Atlanta United and NYCFC. It is manageable.

Including the draw against the Revolution, nine points in six games would keep the crew at a solid 1.5-point-per-game pace before recovering all of their cavalry. There should be some confidence after beating the best team in the East.

“We’re leaving a little bit with a little bit of venom in our heads and hearts today, and I think we’re going to throw it in Cincinnati next week,” Porter said. “We’re going to need it because they’re going to be ready for it.

jmyers@dispatch.com

@_jcmyers


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