Most folks know Columbus, Ohio, as home to The Ohio State University. New England Revolution supporters likely associate the capital of Ohio with fond memories of recent playoff-related success. To wit, entering Decision Day 2013, the Revs marched into then-Crew Stadium needing nothing short of a full three points to erase a four-year playoff drought. Led by MLS Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves and a resurgent Juan Agudelo, Jay Heaps’ second-year squad secured a hard-fought 1-0 victory that not only earned a playoff spot but also temporarily revitalized the franchise.
The following year, New England’s ascendancy to an MLS Cup final was also launched in Columbus. An emphatic 4-2 first-leg playoff win was highlighted by fan favorite Charlie Davies’ two-goal outburst. Pleasant memories indeed, but distant ones, as the Revs haven’t gained a single result in the city since then.
Both teams also enter this match under clouds of uncertainty from a respective supporter’s viewpoint. Crew SC fans have no idea whether they’ll even have a club in their city next season, as current ownership is full-speed ahead on moving to Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, New England diehards have just about had it with the Lee Nguyen soap opera, especially after last week’s loss when many believe he could have been a game-changer. Only time will tell how both of these lingering issues get resolved. On to the match!
Breaking Down Columbus Crew SC (3-3-1, 10 pts, +2)
Current Form: L-L-L-W-D
Fifth-year gaffer and sporting director Gregg Berhalter didn’t do much offseason tinkering with his 2017 Eastern Conference finalists. The two biggest moves directly involved offensive production, as a combined 31 goals and 15 assists in 2017 were shipped out of Columbus. After two seasons, Crew SC forward and leading goal-scorer Ola Kamara was traded to LA Galaxy for US international striker Gyasi Zardes and allocation money. The Norwegian fan favorite wanted out, but supporters weren’t thrilled about getting Zardes. However, a solid preseason and start to the 2018 campaign have changed most minds, as the former Galaxy Homegrown provides more scoring ability (his four goals lead the team), better hold-up play, and a stronger presence in the air. Crew SC also sent their longest-tenured player, Justin Meram, to Orlando City in exchange for over a million in allocation money and an International roster spot.
For several years, the Columbus midfield has been built around central attacker Federico “Pipa” Higuain and holding midfielder Will Trapp. Now in his seventh season, the Argentinian Higuain has contributed 50 goals and 51 assists in 156 appearances (151 starts) for Crew SC. Portuguese veteran and Designated Player Pedro Santos, in his first full season in Columbus following his 2017 transfer from first-division side SC Braga, has inherited Meram’s left wing position. The attack-minded Santos has contributed a goal and an assist in seven starts this year. Panama international Cristian Martinez, his opposite number at right wing, fills out the attacking corps. He’s assisted on two goals in 2018. Both Santos and Martinez can play on either wing. Second-year forward Niko Hansen, not quite at full fitness following a preseason injury, provides depth at wing and may even compete for starting minutes once back to 100 percent.
Team captain and Crew SC Homegrown Will Trapp — who was on the pitch for that Revs’ playoff-clinching win in 2013 — has logged over 11,000 minutes in 133 appearances (130 starts) while becoming a USMNT regular. He’s joined in central midfield by young Brazilian Artur, who was permanently signed in the preseason following a 2017 loan stint from Sao Paulo. The duo forms one of the better midfield tandems in MLS, providing top-shelf defensive cover along with superb passing ability. Former US international Ricardo Clark was acquired in the offseason to add midfield depth, and he’s already notched his first goal with Crew SC.
The right side of the Columbus backline is anchored by two Ghana internationals and World Cup veterans: right back Harrison Afful and centerback Jonathan Mensah. In his fourth year with Crew SC, the lightning-quick Afful has become more heavily involved in the attack, with Zardes’ aerial prowess providing an easier target for his service. Mensah is looking to bounce back from an underwhelming debut season in Columbus.
Berhalter brought in Young Designated Player Milton Valenzuela on loan from Argentine top flight side Newell’s Old Boys to be his starting left back. He already has a goal and an assist. Veteran center back Josh Williams has earned the starting job opposite Mensah after early season struggles forced 2017 SuperDraft pick Lalas Abubakar to the bench.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen burst onto the scene with a stellar 2017 season, highlighted by his two shootout saves in Crew SC’s road playoff victory over heavily-favored Atlanta United. The new US International is already viewed as arguably the top young goalkeeper in MLS.
After starting the season 3-0-1 — including an impressive 2-0 road win over MLS champs Toronto FC — Crew SC has skidded to three straight losses. Berhalter has used nearly the exact same lineup and 4-2-3-1 formation all season. Now might be the time for a change.
Breaking Down the New England Revolution (3-2-1, 10 pts, +4)
Current Form: L-W-W-D-W
New England’s 11-game unbeaten run at home was snapped in a 1-0 loss to FC Dallas. Manager Brad Friedel ran out the same lineup and 4-4-2 formation for the second straight match: Teal Bunbury up top; Luis Caicedo-Diego Fagundez-Scott Caldwell-Cristian Penilla left-to-right across the midfield; Wilfried Zahibo at holding mid; Gabriel Somi-Claude Dielna (c)-Jalil Anibaba-Andrew Farrell left-to-right across the back; and Matt Turner in goal. Juan Agudelo (Caldwell) and Krisztian Nemeth (Bunbury) came on again as second-half subs, but Kelyn Rowe did not due to injury.
The Revs ran into an FC Dallas team that hadn’t lost to New England in seven years nor to anyone yet this season. They clearly did their homework in scouting the Revs, fielding a lineup and playing style that both neutralized New England’s high press and handcuffed their hottest player, Cristian Penilla. FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja shelved his preferred 4-2-3-1 in favor of a 4-4-2, inserting a second forward (Cristian Colman) next to defensive workhorse Maxi Urruti. He also sat dynamic playmaker Mauro Diaz in favor of a more defense-minded Victor Ulloa. To counter the Revs’ press, the FC Dallas backend — primarily goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer — quickly distributed balls over the top toward the forwards and speedy wings, eschewing slow buildups. The Revs hardly had decent chances to create and convert turnovers in the FCD defensive third.
The Revs did outpossess and outshoot FC Dallas on the night, but very few shots were on target. Conversely, the Hoops clogged the middle and were able to get past the Revs’ backline on several occasions, creating decent chances. They finally got their breakthrough in the 76th minute after a Revolution turnover in the hosts’ defensive end. New England certainly had opportunities to avoid a shutout, but their attacking ability often lacked a contribution from Penilla, who was immediately double-teamed and didn't even register a shot on goal in the match.
With Rowe injured and out for Columbus, will we finally see Lee Nguyen on the bench?
Crew SC’s possession-heavy style of play — working from the back and relying on accurate short passing — has occasionally failed them in the past two matches, both narrow 1-0 losses. Each opponent’s goal was generated from a turnover caused by pressing deep in Columbus’ defensive third. One would think this approach plays nicely into the Revs’ hands. However, beating the press enables Crew SC to attack weaknesses as an opponent loses their defensive shape. As we’ve seen, the Revs back line has been shaky this year.
FC Dallas doubled down (literally) on Penilla last week, rendering him virtually invisible. It seems as if teams are starting to figure out how to handle the Revs. New England will probably need to make some adjustments or hope others step up if this tactic continues.
Reality check: Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Revolution’s hot start, the team is actually only 1-1-1 in the three matches that finished with both sides at full strength (all at Gillette). Absent a last-gasp, deflected free-kick vs Colorado, that record would stand at a paltry 0-1-2.
This is the 71st regular-season meeting between these original Eastern Conference foes. Columbus leads the all-time series 35-23-12, including an impressive 20-8-6 mark at home.
Crew SC has lost three straight matches for the first time since 2014.
These teams meet again next month — at Gillette Stadium — for the second and final time this season.
How to Watch
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 21
Venue: MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus, OH
TV: NBC Sports Boston (Boston); CW Columbus, Spectrum Sports OH, BCSN2 (Columbus)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston); WWCD 102.5 FM (Columbus)
Streaming: MLS Live, ESPN+