Just 48 hours before MLS Cup, Columbus Crew SC were rocked by the news that starters Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos have been ruled out of Saturday’s final vs. the Seattle Sounders (8:30 pm ET | TV & streaming) via their listing as not medically cleared to play, with Nagbe and Santos subsequently confirming that they tested positive for COVID-19.
“Of course it’s a big loss, it’s a big blow. Those two guys have been key players for us,” head coach Caleb Porter told reporters in a Friday media availability. “On a personal level, on a human level, if you just take away the soccer, I just feel for them. Obviously they’re healthy so that’s first and foremost the most important thing. But I just feel for them on a personal level, a human level that they can’t be a part of an MLS Cup, that they so deserve to be a part of. And a big reason we’re here in this position is those two guys.”
These are devastating losses, even for a club that’s been hit by a sequence of coronavirus cases during these Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Santos is the club’s leading assist provider and second-leading scorer this year, his second straight season of consistent attacking productivity. Porter does have multiple options in his spot, like Youness Mokhtar, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Emmanuel Boateng.
“He’s such an incredible guy, one of the best midfielders the league has ever seen,” center back Jonathan Mensah said on Thursday. “Darlington being part of the team is such an incredible addition and we all see his activity in the field. When he is in the midfield, everything changes.”
Nagbe’s ball security, technical quality and nose for tempo-setting is rare across MLS, let alone on Columbus’ roster, allowing his team to assert control over a match’s rhythm like few others.
“I don’t know how he does it, but that is something, I don’t think he learned that,” said Mensah. “He’s naturally gifted, and he’s strong, he knows where to play one touch, where to play two, where to hold it, win fouls and all that. Every player has got their qualities and we know one of the qualities of Darlington is holding on to possession and making a difference.”
How do you replace such an irreplaceable player, and on such a big occasion? Fatai Alashe, Sebastian Berhalter and Aidan Morris are the top contenders to step into his role, though none have started more than six games this season. On first glance, it seems impossible that the Crew could play as far onto the front foot as they typically do with Nagbe in the XI.
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That said, Porter emphasized his faith in both the personnel and philosophy he and his staff have established.
“We have a system, we have a game model. So our system and our way of playing overall shouldn’t change with one or two guys out. Otherwise it’s probably not a very good game model,” he said, noting that his team survived eight regular-season games without Nagbe and nine without star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan.
“Our team is very well drilled in every phase and we can do different things in different games, and I think that’s the key to being a quality modern team; you have to do a little bit of everything,” Porter added. “I’ll tell you this, we can’t defend for 90 minutes-plus against Seattle. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Nor can we expect to have the ball for 90 minutes. So there’s going to be a little bit of balance in this game.
“We’ve shown to be good defensively. Are we going to have that little bit extra quality with Pedro and Darlington? We lose a little bit of that. But still, overall, our way of playing’s going to be there. One day of training we’re not going all of a sudden reinvent the wheel and change everything.”
Above all, Columbus can point to a full year of facing and overcoming adversity of all sorts, and Thursday’s setback only reinforces that narrative.
“The best teams and the best players, and the teams that raise trophies, are the teams that can ride through that roller coaster, and not crumble, not break, and become unbreakable,” said Porter.
“They just keep rolling with the punches. This week’s no different,” he said of his squad. “The news, I had to tell them at the end of training yesterday and I could just look in their eyes that they were like, ‘We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna do this for Pedro and Darlington, even more so, and nothing’s gonna stop us.’”