Where does Columbus Crew SC go from here? The core returns from an MLS Cup finalist and the future is bright with many of Gregg Berhalter's moves paying off and the team on a path of constant improvement. The Supporters Shield? MLS Cup? The future may look bright, but it's certainly not preordained.
Kei Kamara is ready for another go. Federico Higuain will be asked to guide the offense. A full year of Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro on the back line is expected to improve the defense. There is a strong chance that the entire starting eleven from MLS Cup will be starting First Kick 2016, though Justin Meram may be weighing his career options. This is a team that returns a core in it's prime.
That continuity counts for quite a bit. This is a team that knows how the coach wants them to play. Much of this team has lived and breathed the Crew SC system for nearly two years now. Berhalter has drilled the team on the best runs and passes. What's expected in nearly every situation. If Meram cuts in, Waylon Francis knows when and where to push up. The tandem of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani have played together for nearly 50 games over two seasons. There is a familiarity that breeds comfort.
That continuity and achievement papers over some flaws. Crew SC were maddeningly inconsistent in 2015. 53 points was good enough for the fourth best in MLS, but it was also seven points behind F.C. Dallas and New York Red Bulls. Crew SC scored 58 goals. They gave up 53. The defense was very poor for long stretches. A team that should have developed mettle over the course of two seasons was exceptionally mentally fragile at times, a problem that popped up in MLS Cup, much like the team's offensive woes against committed defense.
Are those problems fixed by the players on the team? Will Afful and Sauro and a healthy Wil Trapp fix the leaky defense. The system asks a lot of Steve Clark. He's expected to play with the ball at his feet. He's solid, but prone to high risk blunders. They don't get any bigger than MLS Cup, but an errant pass has cost the team before.
There are tools to upgrade the team. There is both general and targeted allocation money available for new players, but some of that money will be used on raises and making Kamara's and Sauro's contracts more cap friendly. Several players are out of contract and Meram is already attracting overseas interest, Finlay and Trapp aren't likely too far behind. Even though Berhalter brought back the core, it's not a given that another team won't look to pluck them away.
The team is currently short of forward depth with Jack McInerney and Aaron Schoenfeld out of contract. Mohammed Saied had an excellent 2015 and will return, but Kevan George is out of contract. George the best option to provide defensive mettle off the bench. Re-signing the trio of out of contract players would shore up depth for the long regular season.
Then the question turns to the back line. With the starting lineup set, is there enough depth with Chad Barson and Tyson Wahl as the top options off the bench. With Chris Klute decamped to Portland, Barson is now the top backup both outside back positions while Wahl will be 32 for the 2016 season.
With Berhalter looking for continuity, conversations on the starting lineup are likely tabled barring a sale. Goalkeeper Steve Clark came under intense scrutiny after his MLS Cup mishap, but beyond a singular play his 2015 season was a decided step down from his debut a year earlier. Two leaders of the team are also into their early thirties. Higuain and Parkhurst show signs of slowing from their formidable peak, but are highly praised by Berhalter for their contributions.
This offseason's goal will be to answer those questions. This is a team that came close to the ultimate prize in MLS, but that won't mean 2016 will be a coronation. Too many teams in MLS are fighting hard to improve. The top tier have money to spend while the other teams on 53 points, the Timbers and Whitecaps are already retooling for next year. The Galaxy will have time to integrate new parts while Orlando City improved throughout the second half and are primed to climb out of the Eastern Conference basement.
Crew SC look to be on the path to the top. Progress has been steady since Berhalter arrived, but it doesn't always continue to work that way. That job gets more difficult the closer they reach the summit. Nine other teams are looking to get to the finals and 19 are looking to win. Some teams are going to spend big money to bring in a game breaker. Columbus may not be able to match on finances, but they have tremendous trust in the Berhalter vision. It will be tested again in 2016.