The Columbus Crew will need to put questions over the team’s future behind them as they look to build on last year’s strong finish.
The good news for the Crew is that news of a potential relocation to Austin came out late last year and despite the cloud hanging overhead, they came within a hair of the MLS Cup, losing to Toronto by a goal in the Eastern Conference final.
Of perhaps bigger concern on the field is the need to replace the team’s top two scorers from 2017, Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. If Gyasi Zardes, acquired from the Galaxy in a trade for Kamara, can regain his form from a few years ago, it will go a long way toward filling at least one of those voids.
The core of head coach Gregg Berhalter, captain Wil Trapp and playmaker Federico Higuain remain, however, as does standout young goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Midseason signing Pedro Santos will look to fill some of the void Meram leaves behind in his first full season with the team, while a pair of South American signings, Milton Valenzuela and Eduardo Sosa, aim to be a big part of the team’s future, whether it is in Columbus or Austin.
How did the Columbus Crew perform in 2017
2017 finish: Fifth in Eastern Conference (16-12-6), Lost to Toronto FC in Eastern Conference final
A strong finish to the 2017 season for the Crew led to a deep playoff run that nearly culminated in a dream finish.
After knocking off Atlanta United in the first round, the Crew pulled another upset against New York City FC in in the conference semifinal. They went to Toronto for the second leg of the conference final on level terms with the eventual MLS champions, but ultimately fell 1-0 on a 60th-minute Jozy Altidore goal.
Columbus Crew’s key offseason losses
The Columbus Crew scored 53 goals in the 2017 MLS season, and 31 of them came from Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. Both are gone in 2018, shipped out after both wished for a move with Kamara joining the Galaxy and Meram being traded to Orlando City.
The team’s fourth-leading goal scorer, Kekuta Manneh, has also departed, signing in Liga MX. Fullback Jukka Raitala was lost in the expansion draft. Options were declined on Waylon Francis, Rodrigo Savaria and Ben Swanson.
Columbus Crew’s key offseason additions
Kamara scored 34 goals between the past two seasons so Gyasi Zardes, acquired in that trade with the Galaxy, has big shoes to fill as he steps into the No. 9 role. Zardes wasn’t the only MLS addition as veteran holding midfielder Ricardo Clark was added to the fold as a free agent and Mike Grella was brought in via trade.
The team also has added some youth from South America as 21-year-old Venezuelan attacker Eduardo Sosa joined from Zamora FC. The Crew also added 19-year-old left back Milton Valenzuela from Newell’s Old Boys on loan as a young designated player.
Full Columbus Crew roster entering 2018 season
Goalkeepers: Jon Kempin, Logan Ketterer, Zack Steffen
Defenders: Lalas Abubakar, Harrison Afful, Alex Crognale, Connor Maloney, Jonathan Mensah, Gaston Sauro, Milton Valenzuela, Josh Williams
Midfielders: Mohammed Abu, Ricardo Clark, Artur, Mike Grella, Niko Hansen, Federico Higuain, Hector Jimenez, Cristian Martinez, Pedro Santos, Eduardo Sosa, Wil Trapp
Forwards: Adam Jahn, Edward Opoku, Gyasi Zardes
Columbus Crew’s projected starting lineup
There’s no doubt who is in goal, as Zack Steffen looks to build off his tremendous 2017 postseason that helped the Crew come within a game of the MLS Cup.
The back line looks fairly set at the outset with Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah and Valenzuela three likely starters. Lalas Abubakar, Josh Williams and Alex Crognale could all slot into that other center back position. Since the Crew also like to mix in three at the back, all the center backs should see action this season.
Wil Trapp is a lock at one defensive midfield slot while Artur looked very good beside him in 2017. Clark will provide a veteran presence off the bench. Pedro Santos will take one of the attacking midfield slots with Federico Higuain in the No.10 role. The other slot is up in the air. Mike Grella could be an option when healthy, but will be worked in slowly, as may the newcomer Sosa. Christian Martinez and Niko Hansen could be options in the meantime.
Gyasi Zardes is the team’s No. 9, though he may slide out wide depending on the game situation. Target man Adam Jahn and 2018 Generation Adidas draftee Edward Opoku will provide depth.
Columbus Crew’s national TV coverage
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Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew - Saturday, March 3, at 1 p.m. ET on TSN
Sporting KC vs. Columbus Crew - Sunday, May 27, at 6 p.m. ET on FS1
Columbus Crew vs. Toronto FC - Saturday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. ET on TSN
Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls - Saturday, June 9, at TBD on ESPN