The Last Season?: What Have We Learned?
It's hard to believe, but this 2018 Columbus Crew SC campaign is a third of the way gone. (After the game on Wednesday, May 9, of course, which kicked off after this issue went to print.)
Yeah, it's been a doozy. So let's look back at three of the biggest lessons we've learned so far.
The D Gets an A
Surprise! This year's defense is actually good. So far, the team is giving up a goal a game, which is the second-best mark in MLS. (That's worth another WHOA!)
The credit here gets spread around. The spine of the team is stout, with central midfielders Wil Trapp and Artur building on their budding partnership from last year. And the central defense pairing — whether it's Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams or Mensah and Lalas Abubakar— has also been largely impenetrable.
The arrival of Designated Player Milton Valenzuela has likewise given the team a lockdown defender at left back to pair with right back Harrison Afful,one of the toughest individual defenders in the league. And let's not forget goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who's somehow even better than he was during last year's breakout campaign.
More Bite, Less Bark
On the other side of the field, however, Crew SC's offense has been merely middling; that's simply not good enough for an MLS Cup contender.
Though only nine teams have scored more so far this year, Crew SC's paltry 13 tallies are far below Atlanta United FC's league-leading 23. The numbers look even worse when you consider the majority of the league has only played seven or eight games compared to Crew SC's 10 (as of this writing).
It's clear, in other words, that Crew SC needs an upgrade in the attack. The question is, which area needs upgraded most?
Spoiler: It's not center forward.
Consider this: Only four MLS players have scored more this season than striker Gyasi Zardes. In fact, at his current goal-scoring clip, Zardes would finish the season with 17 tallies, which is right in line with former striker Ola Kamara's output in 2017 (18 goals) and 2016 (16 goals).
A New Wing is Needed
Many fans, especially after Saturday's rash red card, would love to see Pedro Santos replaced. For a DP, he should arguably be producing more. But the Portuguese midfielder is still second on the team in assists and shots, fourth in shots on goal, and is gettingfouled at a record pace.
The bigger problem is no one has filled the massive shoes of Justin Meram. The committee approach to the left midfield position hasn't worked yet. Cristian Martinez and Niko Hansen are both fine young players, but they're not the answer yet.
Mike Grella could be it, but after his game winner against San Jose two weeks ago, he failed to make the final 18 against Seattle the following week. Whether it's him or a new signing, it's clear this is the team's weakest link. I'd expect this position to be the one targeted by Berhalter during the summer transfer window.