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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Columbus Crew

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Will Columbus bounce back after a disastrous 2016?

In 2015, just about everything went well for the Columbus Crew. Gregg Berhalter’s system was forcing Crew opponents to play a game they were deeply uncomfortable with, the entire Columbus front four couldn’t stop scoring goals, and all was well. That is, until about 24 seconds into the MLS Cup final, when Steve Clark started the thought process that ended with Diego Valeri putting Portland 1-0 up.

Still, losing a final is no reason to change everything, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Except, it apparently was broke, at least in the locker room. The Crew had one of the biggest fall-offs in MLS history, and all signs point to the enduring squabble between Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain being the problem. Kamara left, but despite racking up 50 goals, the Crew were never really in the running in what was a lackluster conference last year.

How did they address that in the offseason? The attack is intact, but there are definite new starters in goal, at half of the defensive positions, and possibly in defensive midfield. One of the holdovers was only brought in last summer. If there’s going to be a turnaround in Columbus, most of those defensive signings need to be good ones, or Berhalter will have consider abandoning his unique (for MLS) style of play.

Last season

Regular season: 36 points (8W-12D-14L, -8GD) | 9th in East
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Season form: LLDDLWWLDDDWLDDLLDDDLDWLWLLWWLWDLL

Columbus, after going to MLS Cup in 2015, started 2016 off with a fairly poor 3W-5D-4L run. Not a disaster by any means, particularly in last season’s Eastern Conference, but something that required an improvement. Instead of getting better, they went on a ten-game winless streak that spanned all of June, all of July, and two-thirds of August. Maybe...just maybe...this was a consequence of a major locker room spat between important players?

The Crew managed to win four of their next eight, but those other four games were all losses (including two morale-sapping 2-1 losses to Philly and LA where they could argue they were the better team). Still, they weren’t completely finished until a mid-week visit to RFK Stadium saw them hang tough for 70 minutes only to concede once, and then completely fall apart.

Projected starting lineup

There was a bit of chatter about Gregg Berhalter trying out a 352 or even a 343, but with Federico Higuain signing a new deal, that appears to be a back-burner possibility at best. The Crew want to spread opponents out, with their fullbacks pushing high up the flanks, and Wil Trapp dropping between the center backs to start attacking moves. They’re great at piling up possession, and when the system works there are plenty of scoring chances for everyone in the front four.

There are some new faces, which is no surprise when you note that Columbus was one of MLS’s worst teams last year. Finland national team left back Jukka Raitala was signed in the offseason, but the bigger acquisition in the back four is Jonathan Mensah, a veteran of two World Cups with Ghana despite being just 26 years old. Mohammed Abu, who has a few caps for Ghana himself, was signed from Norwegian side Stromgodset, and is likely to start ahead of the talented but inconsistent Tony Tchani. However, it’s worth noting that if Abu is the starter, the perennially soft Crew would be fielding a holding midfield duo in which Wil Trapp, at 5’8”, is the more physically imposing player.

The other question mark is in goal. Steve Clark was allowed to leave, and rather oddly was not picked in the MLS re-entry draft or picked up after he became available as a de facto free agent. His two back-ups from last season, Zack Steffen and Brad Stuver, are vying for the job. Steffen has the more compelling resume - significant US youth national team experience, and a Bundesliga contract at age 20 - but over at Massive Report they’re currently listing Stuver as the more likely starter thanks in part to an apparently unconvincing preseason from the former Maryland Terrapin.

Key signing: Jonathan Mensah

Michael Parkhurst is in Atlanta, and Gaston Sauro has already been declared out for the year due to persistent knee injuries that require significant surgery and rehab. Columbus added Nicolai Naess last season, then signed Maryland center back Alex Crognale to a homegrown deal, drafted Lalas Abubakar, and re-acquired Josh Williams after he left TFC. Nonetheless, their central defense still looked like a crippling weakness, particularly as Crognale and Abubakar fit more of an old-school, aerially dominant profile while Berhalter demands a more modern, comfortable in possession skillset at the position.

The Crew appear to have solved the issue by signing Mensah, who has two World Cups on his resume with the Ghanaian national team. At 26, he hasn’t even hit his prime age, making him potentially one of the best signings of the offseason league-wide. While there should be questions as to whether he is as comfortable on the ball as Berhalter would like, Columbus probably needed to prioritize “good at defending” first here.

The Crew play a style that demands a ton of their center backs. Having to spread out wide in possession invariably means more scrambling and sprinting when things go wrong, and having to complete more passes places a higher emphasis on a skill that most center backs haven’t developed as much as players at other positions. If Mensah can answer the call, Columbus will most likely be far better off than last season. If not, Berhalter might find his seat getting a bit hot.

Key player: Federico Higuain

Since coming to MLS, “Pipa” had been one of MLS’s best attacking players. Maybe not Best 11 caliber, but a reliable threat to average over a goal or an assist per two games played. That is, until 2016, where the battle with Kei Kamara and injuries both sapped his productivity. Across 20 appearances, Higuain’s career MLS goals/assists per game should have gotten him to around 11; he produced 4 goals and 3 assists on the season.

The buzz out of Columbus this offseason was that the Crew sought medical opinions about Higuain’s durability before deciding to offer him a contract. They ended up opting to build around him again, but they’ve got to be banking on him appearing in 30+ games this season. There is no real replacement for Higuain on the Crew roster, and while they do have a clever player in Justin Meram on the left, they often looked like a team in need of that creative X factor down the middle to turn their possession into chances.

Overall prospects

A lot is riding on whether the new-look back four can successfully keep goals off the board despite Berhalter’s high-risk, demanding system. Ola Kamara’s strike rate is excellent, and Ethan Finlay will probably bounce back, so goals shouldn’t be a problem. It’s really all about their ability to defend, especially with unproven goalkeepers vying for the starting job.

Having that many questions in the back makes me hesitant to see them as a playoff team. I see the East having a clear top four, which leaves two spots for seven teams. Oddly enough, a lot of them - Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Orlando come to mind immediately - have the same problem as the Crew. The team from that group that can actually defend competently is probably heading to the postseason.

For whatever reason, I think that’s going to be Columbus. I don’t see them going far by any means, but I can’t shake the suspicion that they’re headed for 6th place.