Columbus Crew and Nashville SC will go head-to-head for a place in the MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference final on Monday morning at 1:00am (UK time).
After missing out on the Playoffs entirely in 2019, the Crew have enjoyed a much-improved season this time around, with Caleb Porter’s men finishing third in the Eastern Conference, with only Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union (20) conceding fewer goals throughout the whole of MLS.
Columbus have struck a brilliant balance between defence and attack, with a host of midfield playmakers that are the envy of the league and enough firepower to send them all the way to the MLS Cup final should they hit top form. The Crew beat New York Red Bulls 3-2 in the first round and will be in confident mood on home soil.
Nashville, meanwhile, have defied all expectations during their expansion year. Entering the league alongside the much more glamorous Inter Miami, Gary Smith’s men conceded the fewest number of goals (22) of any expansion team in MLS history while their underrated attack has become more fluid as the season has progressed.
After thrashing Miami 3-0 in the play-in round, things got even better for Nashville, who beat last season’s runner-up and three-time finalists since 2016 Toronto FC 1-0. The Tennessee-based outfit dominated one of MLS’ most fancied sides on the night and could easily have been two or three ahead prior to Daniel Rios’ extra-time winner.
So, will Columbus Crew justify their favourites tag? Or will Nashville extend what has been an incredible debut season in MLS?
Where to watch Columbus Crew vs Nashville SC on TV:
- UK: Sky Sports Football & Free Sports TV
- US: ESPN
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Columbus Crew & Nashville SC’s previous line-ups:
- Columbus (vs New York Red Bulls): Room*; Afful, Mensah, Williams, Valenzuela; Nagbe, Artur; Etienne Jr*, Zelarayan, Santos; Zardes.
- Nashville (vs Toronto FC): Willis; Johnston, Zimmerman, Romney, Lovitz; McCarty, Anunga; Muyl, Mukhtar, Leal; Cadiz.
Long-term absentee Vito Wormgoor will once again be out of action here for the Crew, while Fatai Alashe is doubtful. Official sources are reporting that there could be up to seven other absences for Porter to deal with, including starting goalkeeper Eloy Room and winger Derrick Etienne Jr, as well as reserve players Waylon Francis, Sebastian Berhalter, Miguel Berry and Jon Kempin.
Anibal Godoy picked up a hamstring injury during the play-in round and is expected to miss out once again here, while forward Abu Danladi remains sidelined.
Players to watch:
With so many potential absentees, Porter is going to need some huge performances from his core stars if Columbus are to avoid suffering the same fate as Toronto. With Nashville heading to Ohio with an air-tight defence, the onus will be on Argentine playmaker Lucas Zelarayan to pick the lock and create chances for Gyasi Zardes in the final third. Zelarayan recently picked up the MLS Newcomer of the Year award after notching six goals and four assists in just 16 regular-season appearances, while he also set up another goal during the Crew’s 3-2 win over the Red Bulls last time out. The former Tigres man has a superb passing range, able to both weave the ball through a tightly-packed defence and behind an opposition press with consummate ease, while he’s also a serious goal threat himself when in and around the box. Zelarayan will look to tempt Nashville’s centre-backs out of position at MAPFRE Stadium, creating the space for Zardes to make his trademark runs behind the opposition defence, and this might be the best route to goal for the Crew. It won’t be an easy task, but if anyone is capable, it’s Zelarayan.
Much has been made of Nashville’s centre-back pairing of Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney but one player who perhaps goes under the radar is veteran midfielder, Dax McCarty. At 33 years old and having been in MLS since 2006, McCarty has seen it all in this league, winning multiple team and individual honours during spells with FC Dallas, DC United, New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire prior to joining Nashville. Sitting in front of the defence, McCarty has been the perfect screening midfielder for Nashville this term, ranking second at the club for tackles (58) and interceptions (41) during the regular season, while his team-high 881 accurate short passes have ensured Smith’s side enjoy enough control of possession to push the opposition back toward their own box. Experience is key in the Playoffs and they don’t come more seasoned than McCarty, who will no doubt be working out his battle plan to deal with Zelarayan.
Scoreline prediction: Columbus Crew 2-1 Nashville SC
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