Crew Season Preview: 12 things to watch for in 2018

Justin McIntosh
Pedro Santos

I'm not gonna lie, the temptation was strong to make this list entirely about, well, you-know-who and you-know-where. After all, what else really matters?

But then I thought back to my first Crew game — THE first Crew game — and that Hail Mary of a fourth goal that began with a booming kick from goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi. I saw once more, clear as crystal, the ball soaring over every head on the field and then finding, somehow, Brian McBride and his powerful black boot. I watched again the back of the net ripple, a football stadium erupt and my veins pulse with electricity.

In one swift sequence, a mere flash of light, I was baptized and born again. I had found more than a sports home. I had discovered my cathedral, and nothing less than full and utter worship was permitted from that day forward.

In some ways, I've spent the rest of my life trying to give back to this team that's given so much to me. And so even now, with the premature end of this story potentially before us, I will retreat to where I always do — the players and the field and the drama that unfolds there. It is my refuge.

As the 2018 season kickoff awaits us this Saturday, March 3, here are all the questions I'm eager to find answers to this year, whether on- or off-field, during this hopefully historic-for-all-the-right-reasons season.

1. Who replaces Justin Meram?

This is perhaps my biggest on-field question mark heading into the 2018 season. Coach Gregg Berhalter's system is heavily reliant on productive wings, and last year was Meram's best ever, with 13 goals and 7 assists.

Preseason starter Cristian Martinez had a marvelous Pipa Chip™ in the Challenge Cup, but it'll likely take a committee effort this year to fill in for J9. Expect contributions from second-year winger Niko Hansen and former Red Bull Mike Grella. If Berhalter's not happy with the production of this group, a summer splurge during the transfer window could await.

2. Can Pedro Santos actually produce?

There's no question Santos can alter games. We saw it in spurts last year — though too often that impact didn't show up on the scoresheet. After witnessing Santos' preseason howler against Atlanta United FC, I'm all in. I would encourage everyone, in fact, to Vote for Pedro.

3. Is Gyasi Zardes the next Berhalter forward?

Preseason results are, yes, preseason results. But still, right? Many Crew SC fans, myself included, immediately questioned the offseason trade that sent last year's leading scorer, Ola Kamara, to the L.A. Galaxy in exchange for Zardes. Despite appearing in 38 games for the U.S. Men's National Team, the forward's MLS goal-scoring record doesn't exactly compare favorably to either Ola or his Crew SC predecessor, Kei Kamara. And yet, Zardes looks extremely comfortable in Berhalter's system, providing a physical presence upfront and, most importantly, scoring a crap-ton of goals — and in a multitude of ways.

4. Can Gaston Sauro make it a full season?

Even though Sauro's been here for two years, he's played, like, half a season's worth of games. The problem is the Crew SC backline looks immeasurably better with his presence in it. If he can remain healthy for the year — and, yes, that's a big if — the Fighting Canaries' defense won't be nearly as porous as it's been historically under Berhalter.

5. You down with the new DP?

(Spoiler: Yes, I am.) Berhalter's history of signing left backs and defensive Designated Players ain't all that, but still. I'm way up on 19-year-old Milton Valenzuela, the club's first-ever “Young DP.”

6. Have we found Pipa's replacement?

Crew SC brass believes so. During the preseason, Eduardo Sosa, the 21-year-old Venezuelan, showed flashes of being every bit as crafty, visionary and shifty as his supposed mentor, Federico Higuain. If Sosa can force the coaching staff to let him see the field more than previous Pipa proteges, Crew SC could have more than a capable backup. They could have one of the year's sleeper impact players.

7. Which Crew SC jersey will be more dope?

Despite acting as an unofficial funeral kit, the 2018 official alternate, all-black jersey is definitely dope. The still-to-come, for-the-fans offering from the Save the Crew folks figures to be dope, too. In theory, it's an easy choice — especially for those of us not wanting to further fill the Scrooge McDuck-like vaults of gold surely stashed away somewhere in the Precourt manors.

8. Will Anthony Precourt face the firing squad again?

Few scenes from last year's campaign are as etched into my memory as the ones of Precourt watching from his posh owner's suite as a hellstorm of f-bombs rained upon his smug mug. Is he brave enough to try it again this year? God, I hope so.

9. Will the move finally bleed over onto the field?

When news broke late last season of the potential move to you-know-where, it seemed to galvanize the Crew SC team. They played united for a bigger cause and never wilted under considerable pressure — even if they fell short of the MLS Cup final. Can this year's team shut out those distractions for 8 months or more? (God, I hope so. I'd love nothing more than to go full “Major League” on Precourt.)

10. Does Cincinnati get an expansion team?

Some say the ultimate tell of how Precourt's flirtation with Austin ends will arrive as soon as MLS selects its next expansion city. If it's Cincinnati, the thinking goes, Columbus is toast. An announcement is supposedly due early this year.

11. Which parallel path is pursued?

Both Precourt and MLS Commissioner Don Garber have promised “parallel paths” in Austin and Columbus, in terms of the pursuit of a new stadium. Like most things with Precourt Sports Ventures, we're learning these days, that promise is rather empty. Still, there's been *some* progress in the 'Bus, with one potentially promising new stadium site in the Arena District bubbling up to the surface in recent weeks.

At the same time, the Austin efforts continue to flounder, with one of the few remaining “viable” sites sitting atop a toxic dump. (Yes, a toxic dump.) Then again, Precourt is so desperate for Austin, he probably doesn't care. For better or worse, this preeminent issue should be resolved by season's end.

12. How will we be remembered?

Are we really “Columbus Til' I Die”? Are we going to, as the kids say, up the lads, even if — especially if — the odds against us are nigh impossible? I hope so. I hope our support continues to make a mockery of Precourt's ambitions. And I hope we once more witness the impossible — a new version of the Hail Mary boot from Bo to McBride — and convert a whole new generation of fans in the process.

I believe that we will win. Do you?