A year following hosting an MLS Cup, the Columbus Crew SC tumbled back down to earth with an 8-12-14 record good for second to last in the eastern conference. How can they return to the playoffs?
I’m glad you asked, here is the latest in our series of offseason repair guides, this one about Houston.
Here is my thing with the Columbus Crew in 2016 opposed to 2015, they were not as bad as the record, nor were they as good as eastern conference champs the year before. The club was a solid playoff contender in the 2015 regular season and absolutely caught fire in the playoffs to carry themselves toward several impressive wins. This season they were hurt by several key injuries (Wil Trapp, Higuain both missed chunks of time), and a confusing Kei Kamara chemistry issue that resolved itself in a trade.
That is where I begin my road map to regaining a playoff spot in 2017 for Columbus. Coming back in that Kamara deal was a significant piece of General Allocation money and Targeted Allocation money (here is a good quick link on what those strange words mean). The reported amount was an MLS record with some outlets claiming $500,000. Along with the money comes New England’s first-round draft pick in the upcoming MLS Super Draft.
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With Columbus usually taking a frugal approach to their roster construction I’ll also be making my recommendations based on no outrageous amounts of money leaving the club. With that being said, Columbus don’t have huge needs outside of two very notable positions
The first of those is in central defense where former USMNT member Michael Parkhurst leaves a hole after not being picked up. The second is in goal where Steve Clark also is likely on the way out after a few up and down seasons. Most every other spot on the roster, Columbus likely feels comfortable going forward with the starters that are currently in place, but depth will need to be added.
Tackling the problem in central defense first, head coach Gregg Berhalter’s system demands every player on the roster to play the ball. The possession style that Columbus has become known for requires the central defenders to initiate the attack. That is why Parkhurst was a logical selection as he is on the smaller, less physical side for the position, but made due because his passing was very good. With the relatively large amount of money available via the Kamara deal and Parkhurst’s large salary by MLS non-DP standards, I would expect the money to be spent on a shiny new central defender.
The tight-lipped Crew front office hasn’t named dropped anyone as of yet, but a high-level player is needed to pair with incumbent options of Gaston Sauro and Nicolia Naess. Many of the recent Columbus transfers under Berhalter have come from either Norway or Sweden so key an eye on that market.
Next up is goalkeeper and what the post-Clark future should look like. The two current options are Ohio native Brad Stuver and Zach Steffen who signed with the club in the middle of the season from SC Freiburg in Germany. Steffen has shown enough promise to make US youth national teams and while still only 21, could be given an opportunity to battle for starts this season.
I’m not sure if a move needs to be made as both of the current options are almost complete unknowns, but I would expect the Columbus Crew to explore options to bring in a more veteran presence. The starter must be decided before the start of the season whoever is selected for the role.
The final and perhaps unrealistic desire for the offseason, beyond adding depth with two Super Draft picks, is exploring the market for another number 10. I’m not saying that Higuain needs to be replaced, but this being MLS, don’t discount the possibility of a semi-splashy signing with the Kamara money. As Higuain ages, I can see him playing a more withdrawn role almost beside Trapp, especially when Columbus is trailing and adding another high volume creator should happen.
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Higuain has the passing ability to have the system built around him indefinitely, but he can’t be asked to shoulder the huge creative load that Berhalter’s system demands. Again speculating on a name is largely pointless as Berhalter has never gone with a name recognizable to anyone outside of the soccer backwaters. The answer may already be on the roster with Grove City (Columbus suburb) native Ben Swanson a 19-year-old home-grown signing.
So here is the shopping list for the Columbus Crew:
1.) Low level DP central defender
3.) Young number 10