By Jason Poon (@jasonhpoon)
It was a tumultuous season for Crew SC in 2017, as a quality and entertaining product on the field was overshadowed by confirmation that the team is considering a move to Austin. With arguably their two best players gone, it's going to be a challenge for Columbus to replicate last season's on-field success.
2017 in review
The Columbus Crew ended 2017 with a lot of promise and uncertainty. On the field, the Crew made a great postseason run and came within a goal of making it to the MLS Cup Final, losing out to eventual winners Toronto FC. Off the field, there was the controversial announcement that ownership is interested in relocating the team.
The Crew started the season 10-12-2 in the first two thirds of the season, but used a late season surge (6-0-4) to catapult them into the playoffs. There they knocked off Atlanta United in an epic penalty shootout in Atlanta, thanks in large-part to the heroics of goalkeeper Zack Steffen. The Crew would knock off New York City in the next round before eventually just coming up short against Toronto FC, courtesy of a 60th minute winner by Jozy Altidore.
Once the season ended, the attention focused squarely on the club's future and whether it would stay in Columbus or move. Due to the uncertainty and internal chaos, some key players requested to be moved elsewhere.
Nearly 60% of their goals scored came from two sources: Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, two players that requested trades during the off-season. Both were granted their wishes with Kamara going to the Galaxy for Gyasi Zardes and $400k in TAM and Meram going to Orlando City for $750k in TAM, $300k in GAM and a 2019 international player slot. Kamara was second highest in xG for 2017 in the league at 17.42 while scoring 18. Meanwhile, Meram outperformed himself two-fold with 7.88 xG while netting 13 actual goals. The Crew have also lost speedster Kekuta Manneh, who opted to leave MLS. Fullback Jukka Raitala was claimed in the expansion draft and ultimately ended up in Montreal.
But despite losing all those key pieces to their 2017 side, the Crew have also brought in some strong players. They acquired MLS veteran Mike Grella via trade with the Red Bulls, and midfielder Eduardo Sosa from Zamora FC will bring some youth and flair to the attack. Left back Milton Valenzuela from Newell's Old Boys was brought in on loan as a Young DP. And finally, long time MLS veteran holding midfielder Ricardo Clark also joins the Crew after over a decade in Houston.
But all eyes will look to Gyasi Zardes and his production in front of goal. After netting 16 goals in 2014, Zardes has been unable to to match that in the following three seasons combined, having scored 6, 6 and 2 goals in succession.
In the goalkeeper department, there's no doubt that Zack Steffen will be the main man in goal. Steffen had an incredible postseason run that helped the Crew within a game of reaching the finals. Steffen will be backed up by Jon Kempin, who should be serviceable in a pinch but isn't in the long-term plans.
The defense looks to be set with Harrison Afful and Valenzuela manning the fullback positions. Jonathan Mensah will continue to anchor the defense at centerback. It's expected that Josh Williams will partner with Mensah, but it shouldn't be a surprise to see Alex Crognale and Lalas Abuakar get minutes there too. They brought back the oft-injured Gaston Sauro, who is still recovering but will factor in as well.
The midfield will keep some familiar faces. Wil Trapp is the captain and a definite starter in the defensive midfield spot. Artur should be lining up next to him, but recently acquired Ricardo Clark could be pushing for minutes too. Federico Higuain will once again pull the strings of the attack in the #10 spot, with DP Pedro Santos flanking him. Cristian Martinez should be the starter to open the season, but Mike Grella and Eduardo Sosa will push for time once the season gets going.
The striker position will a bit thin, it looks like Zardes will be the expected starter, but he may slide out wide to make room for traditional target man Adam Jahn, depending on the game state.
The Crew certainly enjoyed a magical post season run in 2017, fueled by the uncertainty of the club's future and using #SaveTheCrew as their rallying point. However, losing the offensive firepower of both Meram and Kamara during the off-season will be difficult to replace. There's hope and expectations that head coach Gregg Berhalter has developed a system that will put Zardes in a position to be a scoring threat in the league again. Higuain is now 33, and the team will go where he goes. At his age the question isn't so much his vision and creativity, but rather how his legs will hold up over the course of the season.
It's difficult to see how the Crew do better than their 5th place finish in 2017 given they have seemingly have downgraded their attacking options. Still, this team did surprise everyone in the post season, so there is a chance that they can parlay that into a strong performance in 2018. But if Zardes struggles, and the continued uncertainty as to whether this team will even exist in 2018, there are genuine concerns that the Crew could finish below the red line.