The offseason has begun sooner than Columbus Crew SC both expected and would like. When that happens, fans can count on changes and that is what head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter and his staff are in the process of now.
While additions will be a big part of what makes up the Black & Gold in 2017, subtraction is also necessary. There are question marks surrounding multiple players for Crew SC — as the club only has six to eight guys under contract for next season — but there are two big names that stand out.
Federico Higuain has been one of the faces of the club since he joined in 2012. That season he scored five goals and registered seven assists in just 13 games on his way to winning Major League Soccer’s Newcomer of the Year Award.
In his Black & Gold career, the Argentinian has appeared 123 time — 118 starts —- scoring 39 goals and providing 35 helpers. He has become one of the best No. 10’s in MLS and in the club’s history, but was 2016 his last year with the team?
“He has played an important part of this team and for us it’s evaluating first of all his health and being able to assess if he’s going to be able to perform at his levels,” Berhalter said of Higuain on Friday. “He’s a huge contributor to what we do, to our playing style. But in the same sense, we have to be able to judge if he’s going to be able to continue to contribute.”
In 2016, Higuain dealt with a sports hernia issue that required surgery and forced him to miss six games in the middle of the season. He returned for five matches, but was never quite right and had to take seven more games to recover from a similar injury.
After being healthy throughout the majority of his Crew SC career, Higuain played 20 games — 18 starts — and had just four goals and three assists in 2016. This was by far his lowest output for the player that recently turned 32 years old.
“I think Pipa is a dedicated guy,” Berhalter said. “He’s a guy that puts in the work and really looks after his body. I think the conversation’s going to be with the medical staff trying to project that. If a guy makes money like he does, you need to be on the field.”
Another player whose future is in question is club captain Michael Parkhurst. The central defender was brought to Columbus by Berhalter ahead of his first year in charge in 2014. Parkhurst has been one of the most available players for Crew SC over the last three years, appearing in 100 out of 102 regular season games.
Considered to be a perfect fit for Berhalter’s style of play when he was added — long-time defender Chad Marshall was traded to the Seattle Sounders to create space for the move — there are some that believe the 32 year old has lost a step and his best days are behind him.
Whether Berhalter is in that camp, he would not say, but he did provide some information on Parkhurst’s future with the Black & Gold.
“His future’s uncertain,” Berhalter admitted. “We made him an offer. He’s out of contract and we’re seeing how it goes. It’s a tough business. A lot of difficult decisions are made. Me and Michael are very close, but this is something where we have to see how it plays out.”
In August of 2015, Crew SC added central defender Gaston Sauro and in late July last season acquired center-back Nicolai Næss to help lockdown a back line that allowed 111 goals over the last two year. To many, this was a sign that the writing was on the wall for Parkhurst.
The future is not certain for either of these players. It is possible that the medical staff deems Higuain healthy enough to rest any fears Berhalter has with his No. 10 and Parkhurst agrees to return to the club for less money and take on a bit of a different role.
It’s also possible the opposite occurs, or at least one player leaves, and then Berhalter must find replacements.
Unlike with Parkhurst, the roster features no ready-made substitute for Higuain. While the Black & Gold managed to score goals without him in the lineup in 2016, it was more of a struggle to create offense and Berhalter was consistently tinkering with who to play that position. Like a goal-scoring forward, a creative attacking player is not easy to find, as teams around the MLS and the world have shown.
Although Næss is the heir apparent to Parkhurst in the center of Crew SC’s defense, there is a matter of depth that will need filling. Tyson Wahl, who stepped in dutifully 49 times throughout Parkhurst’s tenure, announced his retirement due to concussion issues recently.
With Sauro’s knack for picking up injuries — he missed over half the season in 2016 — Berhalter would love to have someone who is as experienced and understands the system like Parkhurst, but that’s easier said than done.
For Berhalter, this is the beginning to another offseason, his third in charge in Columbus. This year though, the Black & Gold come off the worst finish under his watch and he knows changes must be made to achieve the standard set in his first two seasons.
“You’re evaluating everything. We weren’t very successful in any areas of the field so it would be natural that you would be evaluating all of those areas,” Berhalter said. “It’s not personal. It’s taking stock and saying, ‘How did this person perform at this position? How did this person perform at his position?’ and you go through every position and you evaluate it and you see (if) changes need to be made or can we keep the status quo? So that’s all we’re doing.”