The past two years have been polar opposites for Columbus Crew SC. Two years ago they made a deep run to the MLS Cup on the heels of a possession, control playing style. Last year that system fell apart as a largely unchanged squad came in 18th place. Did they do enough this offseason to turn it around?
Columbus Crew SC has become an interesting case in MLS. With a manager who has experience and contacts in some of the more obscure leagues around Europe, every year they bring in unheralded prospects. Some work out and others leave before the season is even up.
With the club’s preseason kicking off yesterday in Brazil it is time to examine if the moves made this offseason will work out or be the leave midseason type.
It quickly became apparent last season that the defending was going to be a primary problem for Columbus Crew SC. With head coach Gregg Berhalter’s style of extremely attacking fullbacks, the two central defenders needed to be very sturdy and capable of 1v1 defending. While they had stretches of competency, Michael Parkhurst and whoever his partner was, struggled mightily. Parkhurst for his part was a fantastic leader, but in his advancing years, he just wasn’t the same type of player that won national team caps.
The Crew SC management made a quick decision this offseason in offloading Parkhurst and with the news of his top partner, Gaston Sauro suffering a major season-threatening injury, that was clearly the most glaring weakness.
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Other positions of change include goalkeeper where MLS Cup starter Steve Clark was shipped out and midfield where two players Mo Saeid and Cedric Mabwati were lost in the expansion draft and transfer out respectively.
Evidently, Columbus Crew SC feel like they made their goalkeeper transfer during the summer bringing in USMNT prospect Zach Steffen from Germany. This is a move that has a ton of potential, but until Steffen actually compiles a resume of match minutes it will be difficult to tell. The youngster only made a handful of appearances for SC Freiburg II during his time there. In a perfect world, no club wants to have a 21-year-old in goal as it is typically a position given to experienced players, so we’ll see how this decision works out. Berhalter needs his goalkeepers to be adept at playing with their feet, something Clark struggled with and presumably Steffen is capable at this task.
The midfield has been addressed through the draft and yet another international signing from Norway. The winger who will be replacing Mabwati is a Danish player named Niko Hansen who went to New Mexico and based on his highlights plays more of an inside forward, kind of in the mold of Justin Meram. It will likely take a year or two for Hansen to learn the MLS game and make a real impact. If Meram and Ethan Finlay can stay healthy and Cristian Martinez can take the next step, Hansen won’t really be needed anyway. Hansen will be an interesting case to watch in the preseason to see if he can break into the substitute rotation on the bench.
The replacement for Saeid is Ghanaian Mohammed Abu from a club in Norway. News came down yesterday of the move and Abu is a diminutive midfielder that has a game very reminiscent of Saeid. I would expect him to compete or at the very least provide cover for the duo of Trapp and Tchani.
Finally, we get to the central defense, that went under a massive overhaul. Columbus Crew SC brought in five players capable of playing central defense, including Jonathan Mensah of Ghana who will be playing on a DP contract. Fans of the USMNT will remember Mensah as the center back who has played for the Ghana national team that terrorized the US for years.
Aside from that very promising signing, Columbus Crew SC went with a mixture of youth and MLS experience. First, they brought Cleveland native Josh Williams back and will likely ask him to provide cover for the starters. The other two major central defender prospects that were signed are Alex Crognale (a homegrown) and Lalas Abubakar, Crew SC’s top pick.
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I’ve heard Crognale described as a player who would have been a top 5 pick in the MLS draft had he not been signed and Abubakar was indeed a top five pick. Through these changes, Columbus Crew SC will have a totally different look on the defensive end.
Another interesting wrinkle is that Mensah, Abubakar, Abu and current starting right back Harrison Afful all hail from Ghana. The potential is there for almost half of the starting eleven and 4/5 of the starting backline/defensive midfield group to be from Ghana.
I’ve now introduced you to the new faces and it is time to answer the question of will it be enough. To that, I answer yes to put it simply. All of the players brought in for the defensive end are big physical players who are also quick. Those attributes alone make them more suited to play for Berhalter than Parkhurst.
Parkhurst may have had the ball playing ability to compete in the system, but when left alone against the top strikers in the league he was regularly abused. That won’t be the case with Mensah, in particular, and with the combination of the two rookies and the very promising Nicolai Naess, the defense will be much improved.
With Columbus Crew SC running back the starting group of attackers, we know that scoring won’t be a problem as the club scored the 8th most goals despite a pile of injuries.
I believe this will be an exciting year for Crew SC supporters. The weak aspects of the club seem to be plugged and the strengths that pushed them to the MLS Cup still remain. Really, the only major question to me is how the goalkeeper position plays out. If Steffen can improve or maintain Clark’s level of play Columbus Crew SC will be headed back to the playoffs.