Crew View: Is a healthy roster enough to put the Crew back on top in 2022?

Ahead of Saturday's home opener against Vancouver, we take a look at who's back, who's out, offseason signings and what else to expect this season from the Black and Gold

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew midfielder Lucas Zelarayan (10) misses a shot on goal against D.C. United during the first half of their MLS game at  Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio on August 4, 2021.

“We don’t look at this year being this new start,” Caleb Porter told reporters on Columbus Crew Media Day three weeks ago. “I thought we ended well last year at this new stadium. Our record shows that. Our performance shows that.”

The coach isn’t wrong: His team finished 2021 in solid form. Unfortunately, they had already dug themselves into such a deep hole that the turnaround was too little, too late. Columbus entered last season with huge expectations: All their key players from the 2020 MLS Cup championship team were back, plus some intriguing reinforcements, with a fancy new Downtown stadium set to open at midseason. But instead of contending for a second consecutive title, they missed the playoffs entirely.

Injuries were a major factor in the Crew’s demise, and the problems started right away. Young stud midfielder Aidan Morris — who’d performed so well as the youngest starter in MLS Cup history, stepping in for a COVID-positive Darlington Nagbe — suffered a season-ending ACL tear minutes into a CONCACAF Champions League game last April, before the regular season had even begun. Rarely, if ever, was the whole team completely healthy after that, and even when they were, it was tough to get into a rhythm.

President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko has cited the Crew’s persistent injury struggles last year as one reason for a lack of splashy signings this offseason. He and Porter believe the core of this Columbus team is still among the best in MLS, and they’re banking on that core staying healthy this year. Still, even if this winter’s transactions lack a certain “wow” factor, as Saturday’s season opener against Vancouver looms, there’s quite a bit of player turnover to discuss.  

And we will discuss it, but first: Yes, the season is kicking off in February this year — 3:30 p.m. this Saturday at Lower.com Field, to be exact. This is the first time MLS has launched its season in February, and MLS Cup on Nov. 9 will mark its earliest ever finale. The idea is to wrap up the playoffs before the World Cup begins Nov. 21 in Qatar. But MLS was already planning a similar postseason timeline in 2020 before COVID derailed the schedule, so it will be interesting to see whether this early November MLS Cup sticks beyond this year. 

Will the Crew still be competing when November rolls around? Let’s try to assess their chances via a rundown of where the roster stands now.

Who’s out

The formerly elite veteran striker Bradley Wright-Phillips is gone after one underwhelming year. Columbus made the gifted but injury-prone left back Milton Valenzuela an offer he most certainly could refuse, so he’s off to Switzerland. Free agent defender Harrison Afful, the Crew’s longest-tenured player, signed with the expansion team Charlotte FC as a free agent. His fellow Columbus mainstay Waylon Francis was not re-signed. 

Homegrown defender Aboubacar Keita was traded to Colorado. Midfielder Liam Fraser, loaned to Columbus last year, has returned to Toronto FC. Sebastian Berhalter, homegrown midfielder and son of former Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, has been dispatched to Vancouver. Also off the team are defenders Vito Wormgoor, Grant Lillard and Gahanna native Saad Abdul-Salaam. 

From an on-field performance perspective, Valenzuela is the only one of these losses that really stings, and he has been so inconsistently available over the past two years that it’s hard to say whether his absence will really be felt. Fan-beloved Afful, despite some flashes of brilliance over the years, was erring on the erratic and problematic side in 2021. Beyond that, it’s hard to fault Bezbatchenko for cutting weight on any of these players, even if it also sucks to see so many homegrown players go.

Who’s back

The team will still revolve around attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayán, last year’s most dynamic contributor, who led the team in both goals (12) and assists (7). Responding to misconstrued quotes that left some fans wondering whether Zelarayán would be deprioritized in the game plan, Porter explained, “We certainly will be reliant on Lucas… If he’s not able to play, we still need to find ways to be effective and win games.” Alex Matan continues to serve as Zelarayán’s understudy of sorts while sometimes playing on the flank.

Joining them in the attack will be forwards Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry. Although neither could probably be described as elite strikers, both have become fan favorites for their rugged, opportunistic play. Expect both guys to start at times this year. If each of them can tally double-digit goals, it would go a long way toward fixing what ails the Crew. Erik Hurtado, acquired from Montreal midway through last season, was retained as a “depth piece,” but Porter does not expect him to log significant minutes.

Columbus Crew forward Miguel Berry (27) celebrates his goal during the Major League Soccer game in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

Speaking of offensive woes: Wingers Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne and Kevin Molino are all back (though Molino, like last year, will still be recovering from injury to start the season). Each will be hoping to improve upon a disappointing 2021, though at media day Porter did not seem to be expecting them to make a leap this year. “They are who they are,” he said. “With those three you can set up the game plan where it highlights their strengths a little bit more versus always looking for the weaknesses to be better.” Darlington Nagbe remains the rock of the central midfield, though expect to see young Aidan Morris play a larger role now that he’s back from that ACL tear. Although the coaches initially showed some trepidation about his return, Artur is blessedly healthy again and ready to get back to quietly dominating the center of the park. Marlon Hairston, Perry Kitchen and Isaiah Parente will provide support from the bench.

Pedro Santos, who spent most of his Columbus career as a winger, will be primarily deployed as a left back this year, which makes sense because he shined in that role when called upon last season. Given modern soccer’s requirement that outside backs get involved in the offense, Santos has the potential for a remarkable season. Starting at right back will be Steven Moreira, the late-season acquisition who contributed to the Crew’s strong finish in 2021; when he’s out, support at the position may come from Hairston, Etienne, or players from the new reserve team Crew 2. 

Beloved veteran team leaders Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams are the only returning center backs. They’ll still be playing in front of good-to-great goalkeeper Eloy Room, who’ll be spelled by Evan Bush when needed.

Columbus Crew Yaw Yeboah warms up during a drill at practice at Columbus Crew training facility in Columbus, Ohio on February 22, 2022.

Who’s new

OK, the fun part! Headlining the Crew’s offseason pickups are three international talents. Central defender Miloš Degenek, 27, is a starter for the Australian national team. Nigerian central midfielder James Igbekeme, 26, could be the spark this offense needs. So could winger Yaw Yeboah, also 26,  the latest player to ride the Ghana-to-Columbus pipeline. The team also picked up MLS journeymen Jalil Anibaba, a defender, and Brady Scott, a goalkeeper. 

And then there are the youngsters. Young Georgetown product Will Sands, who came up through New York City FC’s youth academy, will vie for time at left back. Sean Zawadzki, a Columbus homegrown, is in the mix at central midfield. Via the MLS SuperDraft, Columbus nabbed goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, forward Chris Donovan and center backs Jacob Erlandson and Philip Quinton. Although products of American college soccer are no longer the bedrock of MLS, it will be exciting to see whether any of these guys can make a consistent impact.

What’s this about Crew 2?

Yep — Columbus is launching a reserve team this year to compete in the newly launched developmental league MLS NEXT Pro. According to a news release about the team, “Crew 2 will provide Crew Academy players with a more well-defined pathway into the professional ranks while also providing opportunities for first team players to earn minutes.”  

Midfielder Aidan Wolf was the first player from the Columbus youth system to sign with Crew 2, followed by a flurry of young players who’ve logged time on MLS and USL squads: Midfielders Isaac Angking, Jay Tee Kamara and Michael Vang plus forward Noah Fuson. The team has a separate coaching staff led by Laurent Courtois and its own general manager, Corey Wray. They’ll play their home games at Historic Crew Stadium, so anyone who misses those trips to the fairgrounds can get their fix via the reserve team.

The bottom line

A lot is riding on this season. The pieces are arguably in place for a return to glory and a run of sellouts at Lower.com Field. But a floundering on-field product and scattershot marketing efforts could also have the new stadium’s crowds thinning out and Porter and Bezbatchenko on thin ice. Only the most extreme observers would argue a full rebuild was in order entering 2022, but another year of mediocre results will necessitate one — and squander a prime opportunity to attract new fans to its shiny new facility.

There’s no shortage of social media critiques about the front office’s promotional and merchandising efforts, but the players and coaches don’t control all that. They can only do their best to return Columbus to its circa-2020 glory. While much of the league loaded up on marquee talent this offseason, the Crew held steady. Was the team correct to place so much faith in what they’d already built? We’re about to find out.