Other than the emergence of Miguel Berry over the last two months, perhaps no Crew player has embraced a new role this season more than Marlon Hairston.
Signed in the offseason from Minnesota United FC as a creative player who can play as a right winger or fullback, Hairston’s performances as a defensive midfielder have added a new element to the Black & Gold’s playing style and, in particular, how they keep possession.
In Saturday night’s loss at Inter Miami CF, Hairston started and made his first appearance since Aug. 7 against Atlanta United FC. After missing time with an injury, he slotted into the lineup beside Darlington Nagbe, played the opening 45 minutes and finished with a 93.2% passing accuracy.
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Nagbe, who’s basically been a human metronome when Columbus is in possession, finished with a 92.6% passing accuracy by completing 63 of his attempted 68 passes.
Having one player who can pass that accurately is an asset, but to have three can feel like an embarrassment of riches. In fact, for the majority of the season, Nagbe and Hairston have actually led the league in passing accuracy.
This season, Nagbe leads MLS with a 95.21% passing accuracy and has completed 1,134 of his 1,191 attempted passes. As for Hairston, his 94% accuracy ranks second in the league with 392 of his 417 passes being completed.
While both have staggering passing accuracies in their own right, keep in mind Nagbe has attempted almost three times the amount as Hairston, further illustrating how reliable he is on the ball.
In fact, Nagbe has the best passing accuracy of anyone in MLS over the last decade, completing 11,640 of his 12,943 passes since he joined the league as a rookie in 2011.
This leads us to Liam Fraser, who isn’t a rookie, but is a young holding midfielder who’s starting to produce Nagbe-esque numbers. Now in his fourth season in the league, the 23-year-old Canadian’s averaged at least an 88% passing accuracy every season.
Against Miami, he completed all 44 of his attempted passes after replacing Hairston at halftime.
Nagbe, Hairston and Fraser deserve credit for their accuracy, but combined they’re the bedrock of the Crew’s possession-based style. Playing as holding midfielders, they lead the backline and anchor the midfield, in addition to spraying passes into space for the faster options out wide or to the clinical Lucas Zelarayán.
Why this is so crucial entering Tuesday night’s game against the New York Red Bulls at Lower.com Field is because the Red Bulls will high press, and the Crew will need to be comfortable on the ball to break the press and pass their way into dangerous positions.
They’ve proven they’re capable of doing so in 2021. Now it’s a matter of executing in a quick turnaround before they face the Eastern Conference-leading New England Revolution this weekend.