What a time it is to be a Columbus Crew fan. Just a few short months ago, Anthony Precourt and company looked poised to move the club and simultaneously rip up the roots of the first club in the MLS. However, thanks to the valiant efforts of Crew fans everywhere, the Haslam Family, Dr. Pete Edwards and Precourt’s incompetence, the Columbus Crew are poised and ready to take on their 23rd MLS Season, under new (better) ownership and with several new faces around the club.
Aside from successfully defeating the evils of PSV (Precourt Sports Ventures) the biggest change for the Crew comes in the form of a new manager. After Gregg Berhalter was named the new head coach of the US National Team, the new ownership group wasted no time in making a splash around the league by signing former University of Akron and Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter.
This was followed up by luring Tim Bezbatchenko away from bitter rivals Toronto FC to assume the club President’s Office. These moves have not gone unnoticed by Crew fans who have more to be excited about than the existence of our club. All signs point to CCSC being contenders in the league once again in 2019.
Porter and Bezbatchenko have not been shy about their ambitions in Ohio’s capital. In his opening press conference Porter stated: “It is exciting to be part of the vision that The Edwards Family and The Haslam Family have in mind for Crew SC and I look forward to working closely with Tim to build on the success the team has had in recent years.”
Music to our ears. The best part is that there is significant reason to believe that Porter and company can be contenders in the league this coming year. The Crew will return the vast majority of its players from last year’s playoff team. Star goalkeeper and US National team member Zack Steffen will return for the beginning of the 2019 season before parting ways with Columbus to join English giants Manchester City. The Crew have added Joe Bendik on transfer from Orlando City to strengthen their goalkeeping core which already includes Jon Kempin, Logan Ketterer and 2018 first round draft pick Ben Luundgard. I would expect to see almost exclusively Zack Steffen in net for CCSC until July when he departs for City. The others will battle it out on the training pitch to determine who will fill Steffen’s shoes in the net at Mapfre.
CCSC were one of the best defensive teams in the league in 2018 and look prepared to continue that trend in 2019. Crew SC return all but one defender from the 2018 squad. Fan favourite left back Milton Valenzuela will miss the entirety of the 2019 season after tearing his ACL in the preseason. In order to provide stability at left back, Waylon Francis will return to Columbus where he started his MLS career after a stint in Seattle. The Crew also signed homegrown player Aboubacar Keita from the Crew Academy. It is likely that Keita will go out on loan to get game minutes as the Crew have a significant amount of depth returning at the Center Back position. This includes; Jonathon Mensah, Gaston Sauro, Lalas Aboubackar, Alex Crognale and Josh Williams. Crew SC veteran and Ghanaian international Harrison Afful will return to his spot on the right side of the Crew’s defence. He will likely be backed up by Hector Jimenez who can provide minutes during the course of a strenuous MLS season and when Afful is off on National team duty. Connor Maloney will also provide depth on both sides of the defense and could see an increase in minutes due to Valenzuela’s injury. Regardless, the strength of CCSC’s 2018 could very well be the strength of the 2019 version of The Crew as well.
As is typically the case for Caleb Porter’s teams, the midfield will play a vital role in Crew SC’s success in 2019. Luckily, many of the Crew’s best players line up in their midfield. The midfield is led by Columbus born and team captain Wil Trapp. After a stellar 2018 season with CCSC and a successful stint with the national team in January 2019, Trapp should be ready for a big role on the field and in the locker room in 2019. Joining him in the midfield will be club legend, Federico “Pipa” Higuain. Pipa returns for what is most likely his last season in Columbus, and possibly his career. The Argentinian playmaker will be looking to provide an attacking spark and creativity going forward for CCSC. The midfield core is rounded out by young Brazilian Artur and Ricardo Clark. Artur will play a large role, just as he did in 2019. His play in the midfield has been crucial for the Black and Gold in the past two seasons in terms of retaining possession and connecting passes from side to side and defense to attack. Look for Clark to provide minutes off the bench in late game situations when the Crew are defending a lead. The odd start for Clark could occur if/when Trapp is playing with the national team, especially this summer.
The biggest weakness for Columbus in 2018 was their wing play, and it was glaringly obvious. The lack of production going forward for CCSC from the wingers played a big part in the team’s offensive struggles. Luckily, the wingers have shown bright spots in CCSC’s preseason and seem much improved from the previous year. The majority of wing play will come from Designated Player Pedro Santos and Justin Meram. Both have been heavily criticized, and rightfully so, by Crew Supporters for their lack of production in 2018. However, a large part of that criticism and frustration is related to the talent both possess. Santos especially, seems to have the quality required to be effective out wide for CCSC. Santos has stated he had a very good offseason, and seems ready to rock on Saturday. One of the brightest moments of CCSC’s preseason was a Santos screamer of a goal against FC Cincinnati this past Saturday.
Meram also seems poised to have a productive 2019 after a tumultuous 2018 campaign where he started in Orlando before being traded back to Columbus midway through the year. In 2018, Meram never really seemed settled on the pitch for CCSC. However, Crew fans everywhere hope Meram can return to his 2017 form for Columbus where he produced 13 goals and 7 assists.
The Crew’s major offseason signing comes in the form of Robinho (No, not that Robinho) from Ceara SC in Brazil. While he does not appear ready to start for CCSC, everyone around the club is hopeful that he can provide a spark off the bench, and play some crucial minutes for the Crew in 2019. He is joined by a largely unproven group of wingers including Cristian Martinez, Luis Argudo, Eddie Opoku and Niko Hansen. Although unproven, all of these players have shown flashes of quality in their brief time on the field in 2018. Porter and co. will hope that their improved depth will lead to a more productive and impactful for the wingers in 2019.
Arguably the biggest bright spot from 2018 (aside from getting rid of Precourt) was Gyasi Zardes. Zardes regained his form up top for the Crew in 2018, scoring 19 goals, many of them in important moments. The biggest reason for this success was how well CCSC’s system was suited to Zardes. It will be interesting to see how well he is able to adapt to Porter’s system and if said system will play as well in to his strengths as Berhalter’s.
Zardes will be backed up by MLS veteran Patrick Mullins, and first round draft pick JJ Williams. Mullins did not contribute as much as expected off the bench for CCSC in 2018, only 1 goal and 1 assist for the Black and Gold. CCSC will hope for more production from Mullins, especially if/when Zardes finds himself with the USMNT. Williams, while young, is a nearly exact replica of Zardes in terms of athleticism and technical quality. If Caleb Porter’s system suits Zardes, all signs point to it suiting Williams just as well. This would bode well for the production up top for CCSC in 2019.
We have spoken a lot about what Caleb Porter version of this Crew squad may look like. After the preseason, this is what I have gathered. Firstly, one of CCSC’s biggest focuses in a match will be their ability to dominate possession against their opponent. CCSC regularly dominated possession in their preseason matches. The logic behind this is relatively simple, if we have the ball, the other team can’t score. This was an emphasis under Berhalter, however I expect it to be an even bigger focal point for CCSC in 2019.
Another new-ish idea that I believe Porter will emphasise is pressing to win the ball back both immediately after losing it, which was fairly commonplace under Greg Berhalter. However, the nuance that I anticipate Porter implement is pressing and defending much higher up the field. The idea is that if the Crew can win the ball higher up the field, the less distance they will have to travel to get to the goal. It seems relatively easy, however, it will require a high amount of tactical understanding from the CCSC players, as well as a high level of physical endurance to do this for 90 minutes. IF the Crew and Porter can do this successfully, it could be very effective and disrupt other teams trying to build a rhythm and get a foothold on the game.
The Crew will open up this Saturday March 2nd, at home against the New York Energy Drinks (Red Bulls). NYRB have already started competitive play in 2019 by way of the Concacaf Champions League. NYRB played (and won) on Wednesday. Given the short turnaround time for NYRB, the Crew could very well line up against a large amount of reserves on Saturday. NYRB are known for their possession based, attacking style of play. This will make for an intriguing tactical match up on Saturday. However, given the likely amount of reserves, and the likely ruckus atmosphere at Mapfre stadium (more celebrating a team than anything else), I anticipate a huge advantage for CCSC at home.
Having spoken with many Crew fans over the past months about our expectations for 2019, I have determined one thing for sure. The Crew could lose every game in 2019, and nobody would care. Losing games is one thing, losing a team is completely different.
Here’s to a new era of Columbus Crew soccer.
Written by Adam Miller – @TheAdamMiller01