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The Columbus Preview, Part II

The less said about the last game the better. Let's just jump into the preview, shall we? As with some of my previous part 2 previews, I won't be going over the entire roster as I did in the first one. Instead, I will highlight a few players that I think Charlotte should be on the lookout for.

 

Team

Possession

Shots per game

Shots on target per game

Goals for (xG)

Goals against (xGA)

Points (standings)

WhoScored team rating (SofaScore team rating)

Charlotte FC

53.0%

11.09

4.09

25 (25.4)

31 (28.3)

26 (8th in East)

6.52 (6.79)

Columbus Crew

51.3%

12.76

3.62

27 (28.0)

22 (25.3)

30 (6th in East)

6.67 (6.90)

If you put any stock into website team ratings, Columbus is a far superior team than Charlotte. As always, I take these ratings with a grain of salt, but I don't think they should be completely ignored.


Defensively, Columbus is strong. Those 22 goals allowed are good for 3rd best in the East and tied for 5th best in the league. Their 25.3 xGA shows it's not really a fluke. They're 4th best in the East in this stat and 6th best in the entire league.


Offensively, the numbers aren't vastly different from Charlotte, except that they've played one fewer game. And, of course, there's the addition of Cucho to this club which will be talked about later.

 

Columbus vs. Cincinnati, 7/17, via MLS
Columbus vs. Cincinnati, 7/17, via MLS

Over the past 3 games, Columbus has been in a 4-2-3-1. Over the past 2 games, Cucho has started up top for them. In fact, the only changes to the lineup have been an apparent swap of Morris and Nagbe in the midfield (and by a swap I mean just on which side of the pivot they start) and at RB.


Injury/Suspension

According to MLS, the only injury Columbus is worrying about is midfielder José Artur de Lima Junior (Artur) who has a right lower leg issue. Transfermarkt agrees with this.


Being that this is a largely healthy roster, there are a lot of players we can choose to highlight.


One who I won't be, even though he's playing well, is Derrick Etienne. I already talked in-depth about the Haitian wide player in the first preview and he's continued his good run of form. Etienne has added 2 more goals since the first meeting with Charlotte, bringing his total to 5 goals (and 5 assists) on the year. This already matches his career high in MLS, which he had in 30 appearances for RBNY in 2018.


Columbus vs. New England, 7/23, via MLS
Columbus vs. New England, 7/23, via MLS

Charlotte lucked out the first match by missing Lucas Zelarayán. They won't be so lucky this time. As such, he will be highlighted along with his attack mate Cucho. Finally, I'll take a look at Luis Díaz (not the Liverpool one, but Columbus' version).


While the defense is good, I find the stats for attackers and midfielders to be more interesting (and accurate) to look at. Plus, the defense can really be boiled down to this: it's good and Mensah is a beast.


Lucas Zelarayán

TL;DR: Zelarayán is really, really, REALLY good. You knew that though.


My Armenian compatriot has been a menace to the league since he joined Columbus from UANL of Liga MX in 2020. In that COVID-shortened season, Zelarayán had 6 goals and 2 assists in just 16 appearances. He followed that up with a 12-goal, 4 assist campaign last year in 32 appearances. He currently has 5 goals and 5 assists in 17 appearances.

Zelarayán heatmap, 2021, via SofaScore
Zelarayán heatmap, 2021, via SofaScore

His goals last year were an aberration for him, historically, but I'm not sure they're an aberration for him for MLS.


Zelarayán began his career at Club Atlético Belgrano in the Argentinian Primera División. Through 2 seasons at Belgrano, he had 46 appearances (45 starts) and scored 9 goals and 7 assists; he was 21 and 22 years old in those seasons.


He moved to UANL in 2015. He only made 13 appearances for Tigres in 2015-16, only scoring once and assisting once. This is by far his worst season as a professional. He followed that season up with a 32-appearances, 24-start campaign, in which he had 6 goals and 6 assists. He made back-to-back 18-appearance seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but only had 4 starts in 2017-18 and 14 starts in 2018-19. He had 3 goals and 1 assist in 2017-18 and 5 goals and 5 assists in 2018-19. He made 15 appearances (8 starts) for UANL in 2019-20, scoring 4 goals and getting 1 assist. He joined Columbus in December 2019.

Zelarayán heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore
Zelarayán heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore

Based on his performances in MLS, this is a consistent double-digit scorer. If 2020 hadn't been shortened due to COVID, I think Zelarayán probably hits double-digit goals. He is currently on pace to fall just short of 10 this year, but he did miss a few games and it's still very much possible. Basically, Zelarayán's new normal seems to be about 10 goals per year with 4+ assists. He is already 30, so it'll be interesting to see how long he keeps this peak up, but I would imagine he has a good 3 years left in him, at least.


When looking at his heatmaps, he's everywhere. I also think they show why he's been more productive in MLS than he was in Liga MX. Specifically, UANL was using him in more wide positions. For example, look at the 2018/19 Liga MX Apertura heatmap below.

Zelarayán heatmap, 2018/19 Liga MX Apertura, via SofaScore
Zelarayán heatmap, 2018/19 Liga MX Apertura, via SofaScore

That is not the same role at all. Zelarayán may just be better suited to MLS than Liga MX or he may be being used correctly now; it's probably a mixture of both. Regardless, his move to CAM with Columbus has been the right one.


The heatmaps also show an increase in his possession of the ball. This is born out in the numbers too, as he's gone from 54.2 touches/90 in 2020 and 61.5 touches/90 last year to 70.4 touches/90 this year. His live-ball touches are up to 61.6 touches/90 this year compared with 52.2 last year. Additionally, he's carrying the ball more (55.2 carries/90 this year compared with 46.1 last year; 7.74 progressive carries/90 this year compared with 6.19 last year), being targeted more (60.1 targets/90 this year compared with 53.6 last year), and receiving the ball more (52.0 receptions/90 this year compared with 42.5 last year; 11.2 progressive passes received/90 this year compared with 8.66 last year). In short, Columbus has realized he's f*****g good and is getting him the ball as much as possible.

Zelarayán passing percentiles, past 365 days, vs. CAMs/wingers, via FBref
Zelarayán passing percentiles, past 365 days, vs. CAMs/wingers, via FBref

Somewhat surprisingly, Zelarayán isn't necessarily elite at passing. Over the past 365 days, here are his passing percentiles against other MLS CAMs and wingers. Look, these aren't bad numbers by any stretch, but the poor completion percentages are notable.


Now, I do believe these percentages are a result of his ambition in passing, rather than a lack of talent. When you compare his completion percentages to other areas (key passes, attempts for any distance, passes into the penalty or final 3rd, progressive passes), what you see is a player who isn't afraid to try the difficult pass. He simply doesn't play it safe and, as a result, he contributes to the attack in very meaningful ways. Sure his short passing percentage (49th percentile), medium passing percentage (45th percentile), and long passing percentage (18th [!!!!] percentile) all look bad, but his xA is in the 87th percentile, his SCA is in the 98th percentile, and his GCA is in the 89th percentile. This shows a player who is going to try for the killer pass, not the safe option. It's exactly what you want from a 10.


Elsewhere, Zelarayán's numbers are elite. He's in the 85th percentile for goals, although only 69th percentile for xG. In fact, it should be noted that last year when he scored 12 goals (11 non-penalty kick goals), he had an xG of only 6.5. Similarly, this year he's at 5 goals on 3.5 xG. I don't think his scoring is just luck, but I do think this discrepancy is notable and can be explained.


Zelarayán takes his shots from a long way out: 22.40 yards, which is good for the 7th percentile. Fun fact: our very own Jordy Alcívar shoots from the greatest distance in the league at 26.10 yards (1st percentile) when compared with CAMs/wingers (I would argue Jordy is a midfielder, not a CAM, which does bring him to the 10th percentile - but still). Anyway, Zelarayán is taking a lot of shots from distance and a lot of shots in general (94th percentile, 3.14 shots per 90). This frequent shooting and shooting from long distances will naturally drive down his shots on target percentage (35th percentile, 32.0% per 90). I don't think you necessarily want him to stop taking these shots, as it's clearly working for him. Additionally, some players just outperform what the numbers say they should be doing. He may very well be one of them.


In addition to his passing ability, assist making, and goal-scoring, Zelarayán is also a phenomenal dribbler. He's in the 99th percentile for dribbles completed (3.50 per 90), the 98th percentile for dribbles attempted (5.80 per 90), the 79th percentile for successful dribble percentage, the 98th percentile for players dribbled past and the 95th percentile for nutmegs. Unsurprisingly with these dribbling stats, he draws a lot of fouls (91st percentile).


Defensively, Zelarayán is--who cares. Legitimately, his numbers aren't good, but I don't care, Columbus probably doesn't care, and you shouldn't either. Zelarayán is an MLS version of prime Mesut Özil. You don't ask or care if that player defends. He's in the squad to score and assist. Zelarayán obviously does that exceedingly well.


In short, as an attacking midfielder, Zelarayán is about as good as you'll get, especially in MLS. He's going to be a nightmare for Bronico, Corujo, and company to deal with, especially since he's going to pop up all over the pitch.


Cucho

Cucho heatmap, 2021/22 for Watford, via SofaScore
Cucho heatmap, 2021/22 for Watford, via SofaScore

Columbus appears to have done some really good work getting Juan Camilo Hernández Suárez, or Cucho for short.


The 23-year-old Colombian began his career at CD América in the Colombian Primera A, where he was on loan from Spanish side Granada. He made only 13 appearances and had only 2 assists in those appearances, but was only 17 years old. He would never appear for Granada.


He was sold to Watford in 2017 and then sent out on loan. First, he moved to Huesca in the Spanish second division in 2017 and would go on to make 69 appearances (58 starts) for them over 2 years. As an 18-year-old in the Segunda División, he scored 17 goals and had 6 assists in 35 appearances. He helped Huesca move from the second division to La Liga for 2018-19, but the production was a bit different there.

Cucho heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore
Cucho heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore

In La Liga for Huesca, he only managed 4 goals and 3 assists in 34 appearances. He moved to Mallorca on loan the following year, where he had 5 goals and 1 assist in 22 appearances. He then played for Getafe, where he had 2 goals and 3 assists in 23 appearances. He returned (finally) to his parent club, Watford, for the 2021-22 and made 25 appearances, but only 11 starts. He scored 5 goals and had 2 assists in those appearances.


Now with Columbus, Cucho has gotten off to a flying start. He's only made 4 appearances (2 starts) but already has 4 goals. Like Zelarayán, Cucho is a wide player that Columbus has put more centrally. His heatmaps above show that change. For Watford (and previous clubs), he was played as a winger. FBref has him as a "forward" for his 4 games with Columbus and the heatmap and starting XIs support that. He's still drifting wide, but he's playing much more as a forward.


Now Cucho is only listed at 5'8" (and a half) and 161 lbs, but he's been really good in the air. He's in the 96th percentile for aerials won for the 2021-22 Premier League season. When compared to all 5 Big European leagues, he's in the 99th percentile. It should be noted, that this is for him as a winger, which is not how he's playing with Columbus. If he were compared with strikers, I'm sure the numbers would not be as impressive. With that said, the point is he's not tall, but he's not a liability in the air either.


It's difficult to dive too much into his percentiles. Watford was not good last year and got relegated. Of course, that fact actually speaks to his talent as some of his percentiles were really impressive. When looking at just the Premier League and comparing him to CAMs/wingers, Cucho is in the 84th percentile for goals, the 86th percentile for non-penalty goals, and the 91st percentile for goals per shot on target. He's only in the 46th percentile for xG and the 59th percentile for shots on target, but, again, Watford was bad so this probably isn't a surprise.


While Cucho only had 5 goals last year, Watford only had 34 total on the year. He scored 15% of their goals! The point of all this is that Cucho can score. I'm not sure what exactly his level is, as he tore apart a second division but never got more than 5 at a top-flight club. At only 23, it's not like he's a finished product and the potential for him to score loads of goals is real. If I had to guess, I would say we see output similar to his first year at Huesca with Columbus, especially with the positional change factored in.

Cucho passing percentiles, past 365 days for Premier League, via FBref
Cucho passing percentiles, past 365 days for Premier League, via FBref

The passing numbers for Cucho are not great, which is probably another reason for Columbus moving him more centrally. The crosses into the penalty area are good, but at the same time crossing isn't always the most effective way to create goals (this depends on a lot of factors and type of cross, but just lumping the ball into the area via cross isn't the best). Everything else is yikes. The numbers for pass completion at any level are really poor. I guess there are some positives in the long passing, but his inability to pass in the short and medium distances is pretty concerning. Of course, this is also the Premier League, which is one of, if not the best, leagues in the world. Playing on a relegated team probably skews these numbers a bit.


I'll be interested to see how he fairs in MLS and what his numbers look like. So far, they look pretty similar. His total percentage in the limited minutes he played is 71.0%, but that seems to be a direct result of improved long passing completion (66.7% compared with 48.8% for Watford and 55.6% for his career). His short passing completion is 77.6% which is in line with his career numbers (76.0%). The same is true for his medium passing, which is at 66.7% (just off his 67.0% career number). My guess is that he's never going to be a dangerous passer and a best-case scenario for him is to probably become average.


His dribbling numbers are decent: 71st percentile for dribbles completed, 74th percentile for players dribbled past, and 67th percentile for dribbles attempted. I imagine these numbers will improve in MLS; if he was able to do this against Premier League defenders, he should be able to do it better against MLS-level ones.


Looking at all of this, I think Columbus' decision to convert him to a central forward makes sense. His history shows he can score, but not necessarily that he can pass well. As a center forward, that deficiency is more acceptable. Pairing him with a talented playmaker like Zelarayán and an emerging wide player in Etienne will create a lot of problems for opponents in this league.


Luis Díaz

Díaz heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore
Díaz heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore

Díaz is a true wide player for Columbus. He has 15 appearances for Columbus, but only 5 starts. However, 3 of those starts have come in the past 3 games.


He's in his 4th season with Columbus, only has 4 career goals and 8 career assists, and is already 23. On the surface, he doesn't appear to be that interesting. Yet, I'm intrigued and it mostly has to do with what his heatmap shows us, especially when compared with Etienne on the other side.


What jumps out to me about Díaz's map is how close to the touchline and far up the pitch he stays. He's in the 93rd percentile for touches in the attacking penalty box and the 73rd percentile for touches in the attacking 3rd. He's rarely drifting past the halfway line and is rarely coming infield. This is the definition of providing width.

Etienne heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore
Etienne heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore

Compare his positioning to Etienne, who is playing on the other side. Yes, Etienne likes to be by the touchline as well, but he's far more likely to come into the center of the pitch.


When thinking about the players Columbus has as attackers, the need for Díaz's positioning makes sense. Cucho and Zelarayán, as we have seen, will drift all over the pitch. While I haven't shown their maps, Morris and Nagbe are also all over the pitch. The fullbacks will provide width, but Columbus needs some of their advanced players to stay wide and create space. Díaz is doing this job and, from a counting stats perspective, it's largely an unthankful role.


Where Diaz does excel is as a dribbler. He's 72nd percentile for dribbles completed and 94th percentile for dribbles attempted (although he's 7th percentile for successful dribble percentage). He's able to dribble past opponents (80th percentile) and nutmeg them (96th percentile). When he's in the attacking 3rd, he carries the ball into the penalty area at an elite rate (99th percentile) and is always available to receive passes upfield (94th percentile for progressive passes received). Finally, because of his trickery, he's elite at drawing fouls (96th percentile).

Díaz pass percentiles, past 365 days in MLS, compared to CAMs/wingers, via FBref
Díaz pass percentiles, past 365 days in MLS, compared to CAMs/wingers, via FBref

Díaz is not a good passer, as his percentiles to the left show. Things get a bit better if you look at just this year, but we're still talking about him being in the red for most things. For example, his passes completed moved from that 13th percentile ranking to the 27th percentile if we just look at the 2022 MLS season. Many of his other areas show the same small improvement, but he's only above the 50th percentile in 3 categories for the 2022 MLS season: passes into the penalty areas (55th percentile), crosses into the penalty area (54th percentile), and assists (81st percentile). It should be noted that he likes to cross, as he's in the 90th percentile for crosses (3.45/90). In general, though, Díaz is a bad passer.


Díaz appears to find his way into the side for two reasons: 1) to hug the touchline and provide width and 2) to drive to the penalty area, be tricky, and zzzzzzzzzzzzzdraw fouls. In some ways, he's there to cause chaos. As a whole, his profile doesn't seem great, but if we view him as carrying out a very specific, narrow role, I actually think he is excelling at that. He's the Michelle Williams to Zelarayán and Cucho's Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland. Did that metaphor work?


Conclusion

I don't know that I'm confident Charlotte win this game or even take points. This is not the same Columbus team that Charlotte faced, specifically because they now have a two-headed monster in Cucho and Zelarayán.


Without Fuchs, I would expect a backline of Mora, Walkes, Corujo, and Afful. That terrifies me. There isn't nearly enough pace or athleticism in those four to deal with Columbus' frontline. Of course, even with Fuchs, that backline lacks pace and athleticism. Lattanzio's refusal to play Lindsey is becoming problematic. This is coming from a guy who isn't particularly down on Afful playing either (I'd actually probably prefer Afful on the left over Mora). Jaylin, whatever you stole, whomever you slept with, whatever insult you threw at Lattanzio, can you please make amends? We need more of you on the pitch.


In the midfield, McNeill has been a surprise but the last game showed he needs a break. Bronico, Ruiz, and Bender would probably be my guess, especially if Jóźwiak can't go, but I'm usually wrong on these predictions. If Jóźwiak can play, I would honestly like to see him given another run at CAM. 69 (nice) minutes of domination before he was injured in Toronto isn't enough to say it was a failure or a success. Coming home where we're so much better will give a clearer understanding.


Up top, please, let's sit Reyna. He's not the future of this club and he's not helping enough in the present. I'd much prefer those minutes to go to Shinyashiki or Gaines. If Jóźwiak can't go or is played as a CAM, give me a front 3 of Shinyashiki-Świderski-Gaines. People are down on Gaines, but as I've said before he provides two things: pace and good runs in behind. Without Jóźwiak, this team doesn't have that player. I'm yelling into the void on this, though, and I expect Reyna to start.


In goal, can we get a return of good Kahlina? To be the bearer of bad news, he's coming back down to earth hard. His PSxG+/- was at +0.7 after 7 games and +1.8 after 14 games. At 21 games, he's down to 0.0 for his PSxG+/-. He's trending in the wrong direction and I think, if we're being unbiased, the eye test shows that.


I don't blame him too much for the first two goals in that Toronto game--a wicked deflection and then a good header (on an unmarked man, which is the defender's fault). However, go look back at the 3rd and 4th goals. Bernardeschi's goal should be saved. He's far out and I need my goalkeeper to do better there. On the 4th goal, yes, the defending in front of him is awful, but Bradley is not Messi. I'm probably being unfair, but I want my goalkeeper to make himself bigger there. It's just too easy for Bradley. I think Kahlina will have expected himself to have done better on both of those chances.


The state of the club has a lot of us down, myself included, and my prediction below of a loss is a reflection of that pessimism. But they're a completely different team at home, so here's hoping we see the team that demolished Nashville and not the one that was embarrassed on the road in two straight.


Prediction : Charlotte 1 - Columbus 2




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