Crew season preview: 17 Questions For 2017

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew SC defender Nicolai Naess (24) and Columbus Crew SC forward Adam Jahn (12) fight for the ball against Chicago Fire midfielder Khaly Thiam (19)

In 2015, Crew SC came within one goal of winning the MLS Cup. They returned essentially the same roster in 2016 yet missed the playoffs. These questions will determine whether Columbus can contend again in 2017.

1. Can the defense get it together?Last season's Achilles heel was a defense that conceded 58 goals, tied for second worst in the league. The biggest key to bouncing back will be patching up those leaks. New internationals Jonathan Mensah and Jukka Raitala should help. Speaking of which…

2. Is Mensah worth the money?Ghanaian center back Mensah is a 26-year-old veteran of two World Cups. As a highly paid Designated Player, he'll be expected to improve on departed captain Michael Parkhurst's performance.

3. Who'll start at goalkeeper? Columbus opted not to bring back three-year starter Steve Clark, resulting in a battle between three young, unproven netminders: Clark's longtime backup, Brad Stuver, 25; young prodigy Zack Steffen, 21, a two-year veteran of Germany's SC Freiburg; and rookie Logan Ketterer, 23, late of Bradley University. Steffen has the upper hand coming out of the preseason.

4. Is Wil Trapp ready to lead?Central midfielder Trapp is a World Cup hopeful. To remain on the USA's radar for Russia 2018 he'll first need to avoid concussions and play like a captain for his hometown club. (He wore the armband in the final preseason match.)

5. Is Ola Kamara an elite striker? Kamara filled in ably after the Crew's falling out with Kei Kamara (no relation), tallying 16 goals in 20 starts. Columbus is relying on him to maintain and even increase that production.

6. If not Kamara, where will the goals come from? Say Kamara gets hurt or slumps. Is backup Adam Jahn a reliable scoring threat? Does Head Coach Gregg Berhalter have another forward in his crosshairs — perhaps via trade?

7. Is Tony Tchani on the chopping block?With newcomer Mohammed Abu starting alongside Trapp in central midfield this preseason, former mainstay Tchani could be a valuable trade asset.

8. Does Federico Higuain still have it? The attacking maestro doesn't need to be the second coming of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but he does need to stay healthy and consistently excel to merit his Designated Player salary.

9. Can anyone fill in if Higuain gets hurt?Nobody has successfully occupied Higuain's midfield general role during his long injured stretches. Relatedly...

10. Does Justin Meram have another gear?The versatile midfielder rightfully won team MVP last year, but there's room for improvement in terms of shot selection and field vision.

11. Will the real Ethan Finlay please stand up?After a breakout 2015, Finlay struggled throughout 2016. He remains a starter, so he'll need to break his slump fast.

12. Who'll contribute off the bench? Rookie Niko Hansen scored in the final preseason match. Young internationals Artur and Lalas Abubakar should compete for playing time against a wealth of draft picks and homegrown signings.

13. Are formation experiments forthcoming?Preseason buzz suggested Berhalter might break from his favored 4-2-3-1 to toy with a trendy 3-5-2. Notably, the Crew stuck with 4-2-3-1 in winning the preseason Carolina Challenge Cup.

14. What's the long-term stadium situation?A survey last fall explored public interest in a new stadium, but the Crew hasn't said a peep about it since. Chances are by year's end we'll know more.

15. Will Acura see a return on its investment? The automaker has replaced Barbasol as the Crew's jersey sponsor. Speaking of jerseys...

16. Will anyone miss last year's, um,innovative multicolored kit? Probably not.

17. How long does Berhalter have to turn things around? Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt likely won't tolerate two straight seasons without a playoff berth. The bigger question is if and when Precourt would consider firing Berhalter mid-season if things get off on the wrong foot. The clock starts ticking as soon as the Crew starts kicking.