No team in the league benefited more from turning the page from 2019 to 2020 than the Columbus Crew.
Going from 10th place in the Eastern Conference and worrying about the team leaving town to MLS Cup champions is a major change in status.
The question for the season ahead is: Is the team ready to scale up with the expectations and carry the MLS moniker well in international competitions?
Head coach Caleb Porter has been clear that the pressure is real as the Crew are set for a gauntlet of an opening week, kicking things off in CONCACAF Champions League play in Nicaragua on Thursday.
“It’s not gonna be smooth sailing the whole year,” Porter said. “We’re gonna lose some games. (The) tendency when you win a trophy is: You think you’re gonna be undefeated all year, no struggles.”
Apart from the 34-game regular season and CCL duties, the 2021 campaign has the Crew billed for action in the Campeones Cup, and likely the U.S. Open Cup if the team takes care of MLS business early on.
You already know about the team’s best XI, but in a season with so many games, the supporting cast will be playing a part.
“There’s gonna be some struggles, there’s going to be some ups and downs,” Porter said. “We will follow our process, we’ll analyze, we’ll keep a steady hand. We know where we’re going to be at the end,”
With the most opportunities to be victorious, anything less than hardware will be a disappointment in the end.
The Crew will also be moving into a new training facility as well as open New Crew Stadium in July, and will be looking to close out the historic, and first-ever American soccer-specific stadium in glory in the last five games it will see.
Black and Gold fans have been put through plenty in recent years. 2020 was the reward for that.
With some headliner acquisitions in the offseason, it certainly looks like the rich got richer in terms of talent. 2021 will be about establishing staying power.
The champions have a target on their backs, and the year will be about managing all that comes with the territory.
Here is a closer look at the Crew heading into 2021:
2021 Columbus Crew Season Preview
2020 Finish: MLS Cup Champions, 3rd in Eastern Conference (12-5-6, 41 points)
Key Additions: Kevin Molino, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Perry Kitchen, Marlon Hairston, Alexandru Mățan
Key Losses: Youness Mokhtar, Emmanuel Boateng, Fanendo Adi, Andrew Tarbell
Newcomer to Watch: Kevin Molino
Molino, last seen contributing four goals in Minnesota United’s three-game stay in the playoffs, seemed like an excessive addition to a team already loaded in the midfield/winger department.
He would be a starting lock for most teams in the league and should give the Crew plenty of production in a supporting or possibly starting role.
Pressure is On: Vito Woormgoor
It is always unfortunate to see a player lose his place due to injury. 2020 newcomer, center back Wormgoor, had high expectations but was taken out of the equation with an injury in the MLS is Back tournament, registering only two starts.
The Dutchman underwent successful ankle surgery but is still unlikely to be ready to play for some time. Fair or unfair, the Crew found a way to win a championship without him, and his tie to an international roster spot means an all-star caliber season will be needed for the team to feel like it can’t live without him going forward.
The expectations for the Crew are high. Making the playoffs is the bare minimum. A serious fight to retain the MLS Cup plus an extracurricular trophy should be the mission.
Which trophy is that? We’ll learn a lot more this week after seeing them take on Real Esteli. Bouncing out of the CCL in the first round would be a major disappointment, and it would not lighten the schedule up much, all things considered.
They should be shoo-ins to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup, and should also figure to have a good showing in the Campeones Cup.
Looking at league play, the Crew were a playoff lock out of the gate in 2020. That should remain the same in 2021. Line by line, they got stronger and as long as the team stays healthy season it can finish seventh or better in the Eastern Conference on autopilot.
That said, everyone else in the league will have been wise to closely study the tape of Columbus’ 2020 triumph. Porter expects that to be the case.
“One of the things I’ve learned, when you win a championship… Every team wants to beat you even more the next year, and they study you even more – in a lot of ways they clone what you did.” Porter said.
It is a big ask to expect the Crew to overcome the momentum deficit heading in the CCL opener this week, but as we’ve seen, it does not always take a perfect performance to advance beyond the first round.
There is no doubt that they have the talent to come in cold and push Real Esteli around a bit, and for the most part, the pieces are in place to kick things off.
Per the latest update from Porter, Woormgoor is unlikely, and Brazilian midfield fixture Artur will be out for the CCL trip.
Really, there is no need to panic for Black and Gold fans when you think about it this way, though: Picture the MLS Cup starters, swap in Darlington Nagbe for Artur, Pedro Santos for Derrick Etienne Jr, and that is probably what they’re working with to open up the season.
With all of the miles ahead, the team’s youth will show a glimpse of the future. Midfielder Aidan Morris’ story began last year, the team went well out of its way to sign 21-year-old attacking midfielder Alexandru Mățan, and defender Aboubacar Keita will continue his rise.
In the attack, you could argue that there might be a need for another depth piece.
Once again, the starting striker role belongs to Gyasi Zardes, rightfully uncontested after his 16-goal, five-assist 2020.
“Gyasi is Gyasi, and his game is his game, he doesn’t really ever have much of a drop-off,” said Porter. “Last year was a great year for him and we expect the same this year. I don’t think there’ll be too much deviation for him as a player.”
He’ll be backed up by 36-year-old Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was good for nine goals in a supporting role for LAFC last year.
No knock on Wright-Phillips, but Zardes will not only need workload relief, but some cover when the U.S. Men’s National Team comes calling for his services, and you’d feel more comfortable with some younger blood shouldering that weight.
Porter revealed his thinking on those situations, and the team is working on a variety of shapes, though, understandably didn’t throw a name out there as a 90-minute option for Zardes’ projected absences.
“We have some situations, probably with some international windows, where we’re going to lose certain guys. Actually a lot of guys in one position, which means that our shape is probably better with the players that will be here in a different formation. The style won’t change the formation could bring out really the best with the personnel that we have,” Porter said in reference to his wingers, but the same is true if Zardes or Wright-Phillips face any injuries.
There are no other true center forward options, and the team would be left looking at Mățan or Molino to possibly fill the void.
There is not a ton of wonder in the attacking support, Pedro Santos, Luis Díaz, and Molino will headline the wings and there should be enough minutes for all.
The man relied on for the plan will, of course, be Argentine Lucas Zelarayán, whose foray into the league was good for eight goals and three assists across all competitions in a truncated season.
In the defensive-minded section of the midfield, there was none better than Darlington Nagbe last year. The go-to partnership with Artur may be on hold for a moment, but the team brought in Perry Kitchen, who will serve as another quality depth option who you’d feel comfortable starting as needed.
“I think you look at the competitions that we’re in, as well, in terms of squad rotation and getting another guy in there that’s proven in the league,” Nagbe said of Kitchen.” I think having Perry here will not only make the team better but also make us in the midfield better and more competitive and improve our game. So I’m happy he’s here. Obviously, someone, I’ve known for a long, long time. He’s going to be great, and do a great job for us.”
The backline will be unchanged from last season. And there was not much room for improvement considering it was second-best in goals allowed in 2020, allowing only 21.
With Milton Valenzuela holding down the left, Harrison Afful on the right, Jonathan Mensah will be the mainstay in the center. He’ll once again be partnering with a platoon of Josh Williams and Kieta until Wormgoor is healthy.
In goal, Eloy Room is uncontested as the clear starter and newcomer Evan Bush will likely be his backup.
It should go without saying that the team did not have much room in terms of upgrades overall, and it moved deliberately to craft a squad that should be ready to weather the storm while being shot out of a cannon in the opening week.
“We kind of picked the guys we signed based on, like we always do, their personalities, how they perform, and the type of guys that they are,” Porter said. “Bringing in players to an established team is tricky if you don’t get the right guys.
“Even though they’ve done big things, they’ve come in humble, come in to learn, and come into being part of this next, hopefully, trophy. Then the guys, welcome them in with open arms. And that’s exactly how the new guys have come.
Columbus Crew Roster
Goalkeepers: Evan Bush, Eric Dick, Matt Lampson, Eloy Room
Defenders: Harrison Afful, Waylon Francis, Marlon Hairston, Aboubacar Keita, Grant Lillard, Jonathan Mensah, Milton Valenzuela, Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor
Midfielders: Artur, Sebastian Berhalter, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne, Jr., Perry Kitchen, Alexandru Matan, Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Isaiah Parente, Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayán
Forwards: Miguel Berry, Kevin Molino, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Gyasi Zardes