By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
2016 in Review
By most accounts, the 2015 MLS Cup runners-up had a pretty poor 2016. A team that was generally expected to contend for a Supporters’ Shield and a championship finished the season 9th in the East on 36 points. During a stretch to start the year that saw them win just two games in 11, they jettisoned their Best XI forward, Kei Kamara, for feuding with their best chance creator, Federico Higuain. Higuain then sat out 14 games throughout the rest of the season with injury issues stemming from a sports hernia.
In spite of this turmoil on offense, the team’s real problems were on the other end of the field. The Crew gave up three or more goals 11 times, and their 58 total goals allowed was second worst in the league, though they were only fifth worst in expected goals allowed. The fact that Columbus is a possession oriented team means that they generally surrender few shots- in 2016, they allowed only about 12 shots per game. But the shots they did give up tended to be higher quality chances.
Cohesion on the back line was a big part of these defensive woes. TAM-level centerback Gaston Sauro went down with a knee injury in May, sidelining him until August. This on top of a hamstring issue in April meant he only played 13 games all season, a pretty disappointing number for fans who hoped to see the 2015 playoff partnership of him and Michael Parkhurst continue to coalesce. Instead, journeyman Tyson Wahl was pressed into the starting lineup, and the results were not good. This combined with a left back platoon between Waylon Francis and Corey Ashe, made consistency difficult for mainstays Parkhurst and Harrison Afful.
But there were some bright spots. Even with Higuain off the field, Columbus’s offense was one of MLS’s best. Many casual fans of the league might not have noticed while the team was fighting to stay out of the cellar, but Ola Kamara, who didn’t get his first start until May, was fantastic. His 1.0 xG + xA per 96 minutes was the highest rate among players with more than 500 minutes. With Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay, who recorded 14.4 and 13.4 xG+xA respectively, the trio made up the only set of three teammates to land in the top 25 for xG + xA.
Though the Crew only scored 50 goals, they led the league with 58.5 expected goals. This underperformance was the second greatest in the league, and it’s a mostly safe bet it won’t continue into 2017.
Michael Parkhurst - In one of the bigger surprises of the offseason, captain Michael Parkhurst was dealt to Atlanta United for allocation money. Most seem to agree it was smart, if painful, business, as Parkhurst, who just turned 33, appeared to be past his peak at times last season.
Mohammed Saeid - Few in Columbus wanted to see Saeid go, but such is the nature of expansion drafts. Saeid started 24 games for the Crew last season, mainly in the center of the midfield. The depth is there to adequately replace him, but it’s always risky dropping a known commodity in MLS for the unknown.
Steve Clark - The Crew let their veteran goalkeeper walk after three seasons with the team. Clark was a good goalkeeper during that time, but not a great one.
Jonathan Mensah - The 26-year old Ghanaian DP centerback will be expected to be the anchor of the defensive line in 2017. Mensah has appeared 57 times for his country, including at the previous two World Cups, but his club form raises a few questions. He made only 15 appearances for Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala in 2016, and before that spent time at Evian in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2.
Jukka Raitala - Finnish left back Jukka Raitala was brought in from the Norwegian Tippeligaen, He’s spent time in Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, and will likely battle Waylon Francis for starting minutes.
Mohammed Abu - Another young Ghanaian, Mohammed Abu was also brought in from the Tippeligaen. A holding midfielder, he will likely slot in next to Will Trapp or Tony Tchani if he can carve out some minutes for himself.
Most expect Columbus to at least start the year in a 4-2-3-1. The possibility of a 3-man backline, though, has been floating around. Here’s where the team stands at each position:
Goalkeeper: It’s unclear who will be tasked with replacing Clark on day one. 21-year old American Zack Steffen will most likely get the keys to the car at first. Steffen made nine appearances last year with USL affiliate the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, so Greg Berhalter should at least have an idea of what he’s getting. Brad Stuver will be waiting in the wings in case Steffen struggles. Stuver has been with Crew SC since 2014, but hasn’t gotten much of a crack with the first team. Crew fans might be worried with how unproven this group currently is, and that’d be justified.
Defenders: Gregg Berhalter has a few options to pair with Mensah at centerback. Nicolai Naess will likely begin there to start the season. He joined the team last year in July, and looked decent in some starts beside Parkhurst at the end of the year. Josh Williams is also an option in the middle, but should only really be expected to make spot starts off the bench. Alex Crognale was signed as a homegrown from the University of Maryland, but he might be a year away from contributing meaningful minutes at CB. First round draft pick Lalas Abubakar probably fits this description, as well.
Out wide, Harrison Afful has the starting right back slot locked down. He’s one of the league’s best there. Afful loves to get forward, and, as Columbus is generally so strong in possession, he can afford to without too much risk of getting caught in transition. As already mentioned, Francis and Raitala should compete for the starting spot on the left. Expect Francis to get the nod early on, as he’s already familiar with the team’s system, but he’s not a lock.
Midfielders: The Crew are very deep and very flexible in the midfield, except at the number 10 spot. When Higuain was out, that was filled by a committee of Dilly Duka, Tony Tchani, Mo Saeid, and others. None of those guys are true number 10s, though. Cristian Martinez may make another step forward there in year two, but he’s raw and not quite a true 10. Justin Meram may get a shot there, too, if necessary. Luckily for Columbus, the team’s wingers are so strong and so adept at creating from out wide that the team is still able to produce quality chances with Higuain out of the lineup. Meram, Finlay, and Duka will all be tasked with putting in the types of quality performances they’re capable of.
In the number 6 and number 8 slots, Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Abu, new Sao Paolo loanee Artur, and Rodrigo Saravia will all get minutes. Trapp, one of the best young defensive mids in the league over the last two years, will look to make the jump from ‘best young’ to ‘best’. He will have stiff competition for minutes pushing him to get there.
Forwards: The forward line will be led by Ola Kamara. If he plays 30 games at the level he performed at last season, he should be an MVP candidate. Adam Jahn is a capable backup to Ola, with a decent scoring record in his limited minutes over the last 5 seasons. Former Division III standout Marshall Hollingsworth may get first team minutes as a third option after spending most of 2016 in Pittsburgh. Things are a little thin here, too, but each of the wingers can step up to play with Kamara in a two forward system in a pinch.
Crew SC’s offense is good enough to contend at the top of the East, especially if Higuain can stay healthy. If he only gives the team, say, 20 games, then I think the offense is maybe a cut below the league’s best, but certainly still good enough to make noise in the playoffs. The team’s success, then, hinges on its backline. On the face of it, my money is on Berhalter’s pieces coming together the way he expects them to. He has assembled enough flexibility to tinker until he finds a defensive structure that works- it just might take a few weeks for him to get there. In the absolute worst-case scenario, his defensive signings don’t pan out, and the Crew struggle just below the red line. I don’t see that happening, though. Expect the Crew to be back near the top in 2017.