Know your enemy! Each week we do a Q&A with our friends around the SB Nation Soccer world to get some insight on their team from those who know them best.
After another frustrating defeat at the hands of Orlando City, NYC FC looks to bounce back against an in-form Columbus Crew team this Saturday.
Columbus sits second in the Eastern Conference standings behind only Orlando, taking 13 points from their first 8 games. Most recently, Columbus took a tough loss to Harrison NJ Red Bulls and will look to take it to NYC at home in MAPFRE Stadium.
Patrick Murphy of Massive Report graciously answered our Crew SC queries, providing insight on the summer signings, team expectations after the hot start, and the tactics and squad coming into the match with NYC FC.
Q. After a disappointing 2016 campaign there was a considerable amount of movement within the club in the offseason. Many of the familiar faces in the team were let go or retired, making way for a new crop of young players and internationals. Just in looking at the squad fielded last week against Red Bulls, Crew started four new signings. Which new player has had the biggest impact so far for the club? What has the addition of these new players done for Crew's depth, which was a glaring weakness in 2016?
A. There are two new additions who have really stood out above the rest. The first is Brazilian midfielder Artur who has played in every game for the Black & Gold this season, starting all but one, and has really fit in well alongside Wil Trapp in the center of the park. As Gregg Berhalter describes him, "he has great range" and covers a lot of ground. Also, rookie Homegrown center-back Alex Crognale. With Designated Player Jonathan Mensah out, the Maryland product stepped right into the starting lineup and Crew SC didn't miss a beat. For a young player like him to matchup with the likes of Fanendo Adi, Cyle Larin, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco in his first few professional games and come out relatively unscathed is impressive.
Unfortunately (maybe?) for NYCFC fans, neither of these guys will likely feature in this match. Artur broke his wrist against the Red Bulls and will miss a few weeks at least and Crognale went down with an injured ankle before halftime. Crognale might play, but I doubt it given the limited training he's done this week.
Not to fear though. City fans will still get to see the new-look Crew. Jukka Raitala has been a solid addition at left back. Rookie Niko Hansen has a game-winning goal and an assist already in his young career and started the last two matches on the right wing. Mohammed Abu appeared to be the new central midfielder before Artur arrived and he should step right into the starting 11. Kekuta Manneh could finally make his debut as well.
All of these players have helped create more depth and made selecting an 11 each week more difficult for the coaching staff.
As for a weakness, I would say focus from the opening whistle, for whatever reason, teams have been able to jump on Crew SC early. They've given up goals in the first 25 minutes to Houston, Portland, Chicago, Toronto and New York. While it hasn't cost them each week, it has sometimes and that's certainly been a focus this week in training.
Q. After finishing second to last in the Eastern Conference last season, Columbus is off to an excellent start, sitting in second just two points off of the lead. Not sure what your expectations were specifically, but how has the great start changed your outlook for the club? Are you feeling like there is more potential to this Crew team than you thought before the season started, or is it too early to say?
A. I was a believer in this team heading into the season. While last year was bad, Columbus played most of the year without the three highest-paid guys heading into the season. Kei Kamara was shipped to the New England Revolution, Federico Higuain missed the most games he's had in the black and gold and center-back Gaston Sauro dealt with knee issues that now have him out all year. To miss those guys hurt the team and they were never able to recover.
This year, the team added more depth to help prevent those problems from occurring again and also looked to improve the defense, which has been giving up goals ever since Berhalter arrived. Both things seem to be better to start the year.
So to answer your question, the beginning of the season has been more of a reassurance that I wasn't crazy to believe in this team. Berhalter made the playoffs in each of his first two years in charge and then had one bad season. I believe he's a good coach and understands how to manage this league while still growing and learning. Last year was a learning experience for him and he's admitted that.
As for my expectations, I think this team should and will contend for the top of the East (I think I predicted a third place finish). From there, you never know come playoff time.
Q. Two of the new summer signings, Artur and Alex Crognale, went down in the first half of the Red Bulls match, undoubtedly influencing the result of the game. Artur will definitely be out and Crognale seems a doubt, so what does their absence change for Crew coming into the match with NYC FC? How do you expect Crew to replace these players and should we expect a tactical change as well?
A. As I mentioned above, Mohammed Abu is a fully capable central midfielder. He is not the same player as Artur in the sense that he doesn't cover as much ground on the field, but he's a guy the team likes and was starting over Tony Tchani before Artur arrived. He spent preseason working with Wil Trapp so the two are just shaking the rust off this week. I'm not sure the team will be as dynamic without Artur, but they'll still be able to run the typical offense with Abu in the midfield.
For Crognale, Jonathan Mensah is back fully healthy and should step in. He's a two-time World Cup veteran so a lot is expected of Jonathan, but given that he's only played 250 minutes all season, we're still trying to get a feel for what he can offer. He also missed most of the preseason with the Ghanian national team, so his first few games were a little hard to judge.
I expect both players to step in fine. I think the bigger loss is Artur, because he was really rounding into form before the injury, but Abu should be fine in the center of the park.
Q. Expected Starting XI?
A. Zack Steffen
Harrison Afful-Jonathan Mensah-Nicolai Naess-Jukka Raitala
Ethan Finlay-Mohammed Abu-Wil Trapp-Justin Meram
Q. Match Prediction?
A. Let's go with 3-2 Crew SC
There you have it! Thanks again to Patrick for answering our questions. Have a hot Columbus Crew take? Let us hear it in the comments section!