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Atlanta United at Columbus Crew: Three Questions

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with SB Nation’s Massive Report

MLS: Columbus Crew at Sporting KC Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

To get everyone ready for Wednesday’s match against the Columbus Crew, we spoke with Massive Report’s Patrick Murphy to get his take on their sneaky good start to the season, Gyasi Zardes, and the latest developments regarding a potential franchise move to Austin, Texas.

DSS: Columbus hasn’t been talked about a whole lot this season, but they’re 3rd in the East and just three points behind Atlanta. What have the Crew improved on since last season?

MR: That’s the joys of being involved with the Crew. Unless you’re in Columbus or playing the Black & Gold on a given week, you don’t hear much about the team.

To answer your question, it’s been interesting how Crew SC have changed since last year. The attacking force of Ola Kamara and Justin Meram both requested trades in the offseason, and got them. Kamara was replaced by Gyasi Zardes (see below for more on him) and Columbus is still searching for the replacement for Meram. The team started the season with Cristian Martinez on the wing, and has used second-year player Niko Hansen there as well. Since returning from a long-term knee injury, former New York Red Bull winger Mike Grella has become the guy on that side of the field, but he is still looking for his form after nearly a year away from the game.

What has been the biggest difference this season is the defense, which has somehow become one of the best in the league. The only change from last year was the addition of 19-year-old Young Designated Player Milton Valenzuela, who has been fantastic, but the rest of the group has really come together nicely to help a slowly formulating offense. Oh, and it helps when having a young stud like Zack Steffen in goal.

I think teams this year have seen a bit of what Atlanta saw in the playoff game last season. The Black & Gold were really starting to figure some things out at that point and it led to a run to the Eastern Conference Final. That has carried over into this season, at least so far. While Crew SC is on a nine-game unbeaten run, the team has also tied its last two games at home in relatively disappointing fashion. Wednesday night’s game will be another test obviously after recent games against Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls.

DSS: Did anyone really expect this kind of productivity from Gyasi Zardes?

MR: Maybe Gregg Berhalter and possibly Zardes himself. I think most fans of the Crew were underwhelmed that Zardes, plus some money, was what the team got back for Kamara. Zardes was a player who had struggled since a breakout season in 2014, but if you look deeper, there were some reasons for that. Zardes dealt with a number of injuries in recent years and was often played out of position. Since coming to Columbus, he’s been played strictly in his preferred No. 9 role and he’s in an offense that creates a lot of chances. Since Berhalter took over, forwards have been successful in this system and Zardes is proving again that Berhalter knows how to get the best out of his strikers.

DSS: Haven’t heard a whole lot about the Crew to Austin reports recently. Any news on that front?

MR: There seems to be more news every day, the most recent of which is that the potential stadium site Precourt Sports Ventures is after in Austin, the third option since they’ve been exploring down there, has a few other bidders who might be interested and are willing to pay a lot more than the $1 per year that PSV was hoping to lease the land for. Oh, and they will also pay property taxes.

There’s also the ongoing back and forth in court with the city of Columbus sewing PSV and MLS over a law that was put in place after the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore that says an owner who receives tax money from the city must follow certain protocols if he/she/it stops playing their games in Ohio. It’s still unclear if this law will hold any weight, but that’s what the courts are currently trying to figure out.

If I were putting odds on if this team leaves or stays, I’d still lean towards moving, but PSV has really botched this whole thing. It’s almost like they did no homework before announcing the potential move to Austin and just expected the city to embrace them with open arms. So far, that hasn’t happened and things don’t seem to be getting better in Texas.