By Eliot McKinley (@etmkinley)
After probably the toughest season in Crew history, everything’s coming up Massive for the Crew. An absentee, out-of-town investor/operator has been replaced by a committed local group led by the Crew’s long-time team physician Dr. Pete Edwards. A new stadium in the heart of downtown is in the works, Tim Bezbatchenko has returned home to Columbus as President, and Caleb Porter returned to Ohio to win an MLS Cup for Columbus. With the Crew returning 96% of minutes played in 2018, look for an evolution rather than a revolution on the field from Caleb Porter’s men.
2018 in Review
Given the off the field turmoil of 2018, the Crew had a pretty successful 2018. Berhalter’s teams were known for their attacking strength, often at the expense of defense (fun fact: Gregg Berhalter was let go from Hammarby IF in Sweden for being too defensive). However, 2018 is the season where he put them both together. In a year that showed an 18% year-over-year increase in average xG per team (2017: 43.3; 2018: 51.2), the 2018 Crew only allowed 34.8 xG, a 90th percentile defense since ASA started calculating xG in 2011. The offense, while not overwhelming, finished in the top half of the league in xG at 49.9. However, outside of Gyasi Zardes and Federico Higuain, the team was unable to convert their chances, scoring 41 goals, only better than lowly Colorado. The Crew got almost no production from its wingers in 2018, and only the stout defense kept them in the playoff race. Read the 2018 Playoff Preview for more on last season.
Columbus had a relatively strong start to the season, but hit a summer rough patch where they created few chances and began allowing more. This improved by the end of the season, but results were still hard to come by as the Crew ended up 5th on goal differential. For the second year in a row Columbus advanced on penalties, this time in DC, to the Eastern Conference Semifinal. Against New York Red Bulls, the Crew were able to secure a 1-0 win at home, but fell 3-0 in the away leg to exit the playoffs.
Anthony Precourt: The former Crew Investor/Operator got his wish for an MLS team in Austin, just not the way he probably imagined it. Everyone is Columbus is happy to see him go.
Gregg Berhalter: Berhalter made the playoffs four out of five seasons while playing an entertaining style that used possession to disorganize the opponent and create goal-scoring opportunities. As both the head coach and sporting director, his departure to lead the US men's national team left a huge hole in the organization.
Zack Steffen: Steffen was sold to Manchester City shortly after the end of the 2018 season, but is remaining in Columbus until the summer. The presumptive USMNT starting keeper and 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year will be tough to replace once he leaves Columbus.
Edwards and Haslam Families: In the team’s 24th season, the Crew finally have committed local ownership. Dee Haslam, co-owner of the Cleveland Browns, brings NFL money and experience to Columbus, while Dr. Pete Edwards has been with the Crew since 1996 as team doctor. Self proclaimed “stewards” of the Columbus Crew, the new ownership group is in the process of building a new downtown stadium and converting Crew Stadium to a training facility and community park. They’ve compressed about a year of work into only a few months and so far, they have been flawless.
Tim Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter: Both President Tim Bezbatchenko and Head Coach Caleb Porter take over the roles that Berhalter had on his own. Each have impeccable MLS pedigree and local ties. Raised in the Columbus suburb of Westerville (hey, that’s my hometown!), Bezbatchenko took a Toronto FC team that never made the playoffs to their first MLS Cup. Porter, also with Ohio roots as a NCAA Champion at Akron, will look to repeat his successes in Portland.
Robinho: Not the Robinho you probably know, but Francisco Wellington Barbosa de Lisboa. Robinho is a 23 year old Brazilian winger that signed from Ceará Sporting Club, but spent most of his time in Brazil out on loan. He is a speedy winger that will most likely be a depth option for the Crew.
Joe Bendik: Bendik appears to have been brought in to back up Steffen for the first half of the season. He’ll probably get a chance to compete for the starting spot once Steffen leaves.
Waylon Francis: With starting left back and young designated player Milton Valenzuela out for the season due to a knee injury, the Crew traded for Francis to provide competition for Hector Jimenez at the position.
Until Milton Valenzuela’s injury, the Crew looked certain to keep their league leading defense intact for 2019. Instead, it appears that the left back spot will be manned by either long-time utility man Hector Jimenez or the returning Waylon Francis (Francis has been starting in pre-season games). Either are likely to be significant overall drop offs from Valenzuela (Dave Laidig’s Points Above Replacement: Valenzuela: 1.64, Jimenez: -0.02, Francis: -0.2) but both can put in solid shifts. A deep central defense will be anchored by Jonathan Mensah, who has turned into the dominant center back he was initially brought in as a DP to be. Unless one of the other center backs, Lalas Abubakar, Josh Williams, Gaston Sauro, or Alex Crognale really impress Caleb Porter, look for them to rotate the other center back position. At right back, Harrison Afful returns for his 5th season in Columbus and remains one of the best full backs in the league. Depth may be an issue at right back, as typical backup Jimenez may be forced into more starts at left back. Third year player Connor Maloney remains unproven at right back, but has put up impressive xA numbers in very limited time. Zack Steffen will be the starter at goalkeeper at least until until the summer. He will be backed up by Joe Bendik or Jon Kempin, and it remains to be seen if either can seize the starting spot or the Crew will look to bring someone else in to replace Steffen.
The Crew look to return their three starting midfielders, WIl Trapp, Artur, and Federico Higuain. Together, they make up one of the top central midfield trios in MLS. Higuain seems to defy age to orchestrate the Crew’s attack. When Pipa plays well, the Crew play well. The double pivot of Trapp and Artur provide excellent distribution from deeper positions, with Artur operating more as a box-to-box player than Trapp. Higuain will be backed up by Eduardo Sosa, a 22-year old Venezuelan in his second year with the Crew. Ricardo Clark provides coverage for both Trapp and Artur. With no other natural center midfielders on the roster, an injury to any of Trapp, Artur, or Clark could become problematic.
Gyasi Zardes won comeback player of the year after scoring 19 goals, 44% of the Crew’s total on the year. Patrick Mullins provides back up and will be used mostly off the bench. Rookie JJ Williams perhaps could find some minutes if he is not sent out on loan. The projected starting wingers, Justin Meram and Pedro Santos, provided little production last season. Meram played much of 2018 with an injured ankle which he had surgery on in the off season, and Santos will be looking to prove his worth as a DP. Both are backed up by a stable of young players: Robinho, Niko Hansen, Eddie Opoku, and Luis Argudo.
Porter seems likely to run out a possession based 4-2-3-1 formation like Berhalter, but with significant tactical differences. Whereas Berhalter prefered to possess out of the back and be more direct in the attack, Porter has stated he will do the opposite. Additionally, Porter has stated that he wants to use a high intensity press, which was rarely employed under Berhalter. While many of the top Eastern conference teams have lost important pieces this offseason, the Crew return largely intact on the field. Expect another trip to the playoffs for the Crew, and if Porter’s style clicks with the team, potentially a bit more.