The Columbus Crew, the team over the past several years who just couldn’t seem to catch a break thanks to former owner Anthony Precourt hating the team and wanting it moved to Austin, Texas, seem to have finally found some stability under new owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Dr. Pete Edwards, and look to be on the up-and-up for the first time in a long time. We’re gonna take a little dive into their season so far, then into how they got to this point, and where they look like they’ll go from here, basically, by the end of this you’ll have enough knowledge to be able to hold a conversation with the one other guy in the office (as if we’re in offices right now) who cares about the MLS.
The season started fairly well, with a home win against eastern conference favorites NYCFC and an away draw to western conference heavyweights Seattle Sounders, before Covid-19 decided that happiness should be a thing of the past. In the MLS is Back tournament group stage, Columbus drew some well deserved attention and praise after an emphatic 3 wins in 3, with 7 goals scored and 0 conceded. These involved an opening 4-0 win over in-state rivals FC Cincinnati in the Hell is Real Derby, a 2-0 win over NYRB, and a 1-0 win over Atlanta United. The Crew then crashed out of the tourney in the first knockout round to Minnesota United on penalties after a stalemate at 1-1. Critics will say the Crew had an easy group stage. After all, Cinci was coming off one of the worst seasons in MLS history the year prior, NYRB had lost their star keeper, fullbacks, midfielder, striker, and coach in the past 2 seasons and not adequately replaced any of them, and Atlanta United lost their star striker to injury, failed to notch a goal in any of their three games, and their illustrious European coach Frank De Boer was sacked (or rather, “mutually parted ways”) after the game. “It was a cake walk,” they say, “they only played bad teams.” The loss to Minnesota wasn’t pretty by any stretch, and I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but I actually think that game is very strong evidence for their quality. Minnesota scored from a corner in the 18th minute, a product of both their very strong set piece abilities and the Crew’s sloppy defending on the night. They then went on to play 11 men behind the ball for the rest of the night, evidenced by Crew having 65% possession for the game. The fact that on a very off night, the Crew managed to draw a team that were dark horses for the eastern conference in preseason that hunkered down for 70 minutes is no mean feat, I’ll take that any day of the week. Getting points when you’re not at your best, especially against good teams, is a hallmark of quality. Sure, the result is disappointing, but it’s definitely not a crash-to-the-ground reality check.
So, how did we get to the Crew being a, let’s be conservative, pretty good team, when not so long ago it looked like they may not exist, and last year they finished second to bottom, beating out only lowest-point-total-ever FC Cincinnati? Well, as boring as it is, a smart front office is the answer. The new ownership group poached top MLS front office staff from across the league, most notably Tim Bezbatchenko, the man who constructed the 2017 Toronto FC team, one of the best teams MLS have ever seen. Last season was a perfect storm of bad situations leading to an underwhelming first season under the new owners, a new coach with no time to bring in his own players and injuries to key players being the obvious contenders. This past offseason saw the Crew do quite a bit of business in the transfer market, headlined by the $7 million man Lucas Zelarayan brought in from Tigres to replace Pipa Higuain and Darlington Nagbe bought from Atlanta United. Other, less noteworthy additions saw versatile Scottish youngster Chris Cadden arrive after his loan at Motherwell ended, defensive Dutch stalwart Vito Wormgoor come in from Brann in Norway, and MLS journeyman striker Fanendo Adi arrive from FC Cincinnati (this one is especially funny because FCC are still paying the majority of his wages). On paper, the Crews XI is just a very strong team, simple as that, with a top MLS keeper in Eloy Room, a strong veteran centerback partnership in Wormgoor and Mensah, two of the most underrated fullbacks in the league in Afful and Valenzuela, arguably the best midfield tandem in the league in Artur and Nagbe, a star number 10 in Zelarayan, a diverse and rotatable winger cast led by Pedro Santos and Youness Mohktar, and, at the very least, (USMNT fans look away if you must) a very adequate striker in Gyasi Zardes.
However the group of youngsters currently deputizing and ready to eventually take over and lead this team is what makes the Crew so prepared for long term success once the current starters pass their prime. Chris Cadden is more than capable of replacing, in my opinion, club legend and criminally underrated 34 year-old Harrison Afful at right back when the time comes. I’ve been excited for Aboubakar Keita at center back for a while now for USMNT reasons, and after the U20 world cup last year and some strong performances in the MLS is Back tournament, the rest of the league seems to agree with me. We also saw not one but two midfielders be promoted from the academy this season, with both Aidan Morris and (son of USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter) Sebastian Berhalter looking like they could be the real deal. Additionally, the Crew announced the creation of Crew II, a soon-to-be USL affiliate, which will only help to improve their development of young players. In short, the Columbus Crew look set up to be a strong team for years to come thanks to some smart, sound investment.