By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
The Crew played for the MLS Cup on their home soil last year only to fall short to the Portland Timbers, and while deep playoff runs always go hand in hand with a bit of good fortune, Columbus fans have every reason to believe their team will challenge again for this year’s title. Every player who started in the MLS Cup Final returned to the team and they added players, primarily on defense, where they needed help. Despite the stability the Crew will need great performances in three key areas to maintain their status as Kings of the East.
The Kamara Crew
The Columbus Crew’s biggest signing this offseason was locking down the return of the King of Scorers Kei Kamara to a long term deal. Kamara’s 22 goals last season was tied for the league lead and his physical presence up top sets the tone for the rest of the team. His long public and ultimately successful negotiation this offseason was proof that top players do have leverage and ability to loosen the very tight purse strings of the MLS single-entity system. The Crew will need another top flight performance from Kamara to keep their edge.
The biggest offensive signing of the offseason was fellow Sierra Leonean and Norwegian National Ola Kamara. Owner of 28 goals in his last three seasons in Norway and Austria, Kamara adds depth both up top and on the wings.
The Kings of the Crosses
The Crew are a team built around possession, boasting the second highest possession in the league last year. Possession teams tend to allow opposing defenses to set up a solid block as they approach, which in turn forces the offense to push the ball out wide to find space. Crosses in the run of play are generally a poor man’s attempt at create chances, resulting in a goal just 1.2% of the time last year, but the Crew took those opportunities to the bank last season. They led the league with 26.2 crosses attempted in open play per game, almost three more than 2nd place Portland. But more impressively they dominated the league in terms of the efficiency of those crosses. Here is a chart of MLS teams in terms of converting crosses into shots attempted and also goals. The Crew dominated in both categories, converting 1.9% of their crosses into goals, landing 17 goals of their 55 goals.
If the Crew had just been an average crossing team they would have scored six fewer goals last year and had a -4 goal differential, which would have likely seen them drop from the playoff picture. But the key to their success is undoubtedly Kamara, who scored nine of his 22 goals from open play crosses. Cyle Larin was in 2nd place in that category with five goals from his 17. The key to stopping the Crew’s potent offense may be to limit their space out wide. Easier said than done with Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain taking turns finding Kei Kamara in the middle.
The defensive unit allowed a concerning 53 goals last season and the Crew brass took measure in the middle of last season and this offseason to address. Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro helped stabilize the defense during last year’s run and return with the team. The Crew also signed MLS veteran Corey Ashe and Real Betis defender Amro Tarek to help bolster the defense. While the offense seems destined to continue their success, the ultimate success of the Crew will lie with the defense and whether or not they can develop into an elite unit.
All signs point to an entertaining ride for Columbus Crew fans, which at season’s end should place them in the hunt for the MLS Cup again. The big questions come down to the continued success of Kei Kamara, their ridiculous efficiency at delivering potent crosses and the continued improvement of the defense. If all three of those aspects continue, the Crew should hoist the trophy this December.