Anyone who watched Wednesday night’s match via the Bally Sports Ohio broadcast should remember an important conversation between commentators Neil Sika and Jordan Angeli.
Midway through the match, the duo discussed the differences between how the Columbus Crew and the Philadelphia Union arrived at this point in the season.
Both clubs won trophies last year, had respective runs in Concacaf Champions League, and entered the match in similar spots in the Eastern Conference standings. The Union, who had played nine games, sat fourth in the conference. The Crew was fifth through eight games.
But how the two teams were using personnel were, and have been, drastically different. Thus, the topic of the broadcast conversation.
The Union, who beat the Crew, 1-0, have six players who’ve started every match for the team through the first six games of the season. Three of their players, Andre Blake, Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes have played every minute. Jamiro Monteiro might as well have too, but he missed a whole six minutes one match.
Philadelphia has used 10 players in every game, effectively making their starting XI impossible to break into if you’re a player who wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the season.
Of course, this can change if players get hurt, exhausted from the sheer volume of minutes, or if head coach Jim Curtain opts for different tactics, but the Union have essentially rolled out the same lineup every game, play in the same system and ask opponents to break them down.
The Crew nearly did in the 82nd minute, but Blake denied Marlon Hairston from close range.
As for Columbus, only Harrison Afful has played every league match this season, but appeared once as a substitute. Eloy Room, who missed the last match at Historic Crew Stadium due to COVID-19 quarantining from international duty, would likely have played every minute for the Black & Gold at this point.
Because of injuries, tactics, or squad rotation, Crew head coach Caleb Porter has approached the 2021 season drastically different from the Union, and has achieved similar results.
This was the point Sika argued for on the broadcast.
If a roster was strong enough to have players constantly rotate in and out of the squad without the club losing momentum, doesn’t that speak more of that club than one that relies on the same players?
Through 10 games? Probably not.
Over a 34-game season? Probably.
This discussion is important because Porter hinted in his post-match interview that the Crew are on the cusp of playing at full strength.
Kevin Molino made his first Crew start and played 45 minutes before Lucas Zelarayán, who had a knock, replaced him. From there, Milton Valenzuela returned for his first appearance in two months and played 30 minutes, while Hairston made his first Crew start after a lengthy injury process.
While the roster will never be 100-percent healthy (don’t forget Aidan Morris is out with an ACL injury), the Black & Gold players might find it harder to break into the lineup for league matches if the 2020 MLS Cup champions start building serious momentum this summer.
Twenty-five players have represented the Crew through the club’s first nine league games. It’ll be telling to see how their minutes per game increase or decrease in the coming months.
A great trait for a good team is to have a strong roster from spots 1-25. Of course, that means harder decisions for Porter on matchdays, but that’s a good problem to have.