It won't be long now. Columbus Crew SC kicks off the regular season on Sunday, putting the disappointment of the 2015 MLS Cup Final behind them. The team is ready to build on the success of last year, looking to get back to the Final and take care of business this time around.
While most of the core group of players return, there were some who departed and there are some new faces in town. Head coach Gregg Berhalter and his players believe the team is stronger than last year's group, but we won't know until we see them play.
As the first part of our questions to our staff, we asked "How do you see Crew SC performing this year? Do you believe they will take a step forward or backwards after 2015? Where do you think the team will finish in the Eastern Conference?" Here are their responses.
2016 will be like 2015, for good and bad. Kei Kamara will lead a high-powered offense that is significantly deepened with the arrival of Ola Kamara and Emil Larsen. Even if Ethan Finlay, Kei, or Justin Meram can't recreate their numbers, there's enough talent to step up.
The bad is that the defense will remain the same. A lot is asked of Steve Clark, Michael Parkhurst, Gaston Sauro, and the back line. They shoulder a lot of responsibility and there will still be some of those missteps, turnovers, and bad passes that lead to prime chances for the opposition.
It is rare that you get an opportunity to bring back the entire starting lineup that made it to the Cup Final the previous year for another run at it. In comparison to a lot of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, and even to title winner Portland, this team SHOULD be primed for another playoff and even Cup run. However, that same Crew SC lineup had some questions to answer last year with regards to it's defensive leakage and its almost complete offensive dependency on Kei Kamara.
Through the preseason, things seems to look the same as last year. Almost too much like last year. Will this team improve, or has it reached its ceiling? The new additions, Emil Larsen, Ola Kamara, and Amro Tarek, will they actually have an impact on this team's performance in pushing for starting and playing time? What about Cedric Mabwati? Will he continue to be just a sub off the bench? Not to mention the impact, if any, of veterans Conor Casey, and Corey Ashe. We haven't even talked about Mohammed Saeid? I feel like there are even more questions this year than last. Though, if nothing else, Crew SC has vastly improved it's depth in almost all positions.
I think Crew SC finished either 1st or 2nd in the East, but be patient. I have a feeling it's going to be a slow start. I don't mind being wrong though.
It's tough to imagine a team with so much returning talent after a very successful year taking a step back, but you never know how things go in MLS. While Gregg Berhalter likes to point out his team's consistency over the 2015 season, not losing more than two games in a row throughout the year, I point to a 3-0 loss at home to FC Dallas, a 5-2 defeat at the hands of Orlando City SC, and 3-0 beatdown from the Philadelphia Union.
There are two questions for me heading into this year. Can Columbus become less reliant on Kei Kamara for goals and can the defense hold up better? While it would be great to see Kamara score upwards of 20 goals again, it's likely he regresses some and that means other players have to pick up the slack. What if he gets hurt? Can the likes of Conor Casey and Ola Kamara get the job done?
The defense is together for a full offseason, but the problems weren't always continuity. Can this team play it's attacking style while still providing coverage for Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro? The group demonstrated more discipline in the playoffs, so hopefully that's a good sign.
When it's all said and done, I think the Black & Gold are an improved team in 2016, but I see them finishing right about 2nd in the East again this year.
It depends on how you measure the steps. Are we talking regular season expectations? Is not making it to the MLS Cup final a step backward? Is winning the whole damn thing the only way to take a step forward? Last year, coming into the season we saw a lot of focus on increasing the team's depth, and they offered up mixed results in retrospect. This offseason, it's basically been more of the same - bringing in guys who will hopefully complement a core that is entirely intact from last season. So, will those be enough to push the team to the next level? Will natural development and yet another year in Gregg Berhalter's system be enough to take the team to another level? Will GB make tweaks to his approach to get to the next level?
I think there are some things that will prove to be slightly beneficial, but still too many question marks to expect a tangible step forward. Part of me wants to say that even if Kei Kamara is great again this year, asking/expecting 20 goals is a stretch. But he didn't out-perform his expected goals by all that much last year - he was legitimately creating that many chances and would have won an expected goals golden boot. So...
I think we'll get a similar season. I think the Eastern Conference is a little bit stronger and I think we'll see a team that can be volatile defensively and keep us on the edge of our seats but will be in the race for the Eastern Conference title and then will be totally capable of either falling flat on its face in the first playoff game or making a run back to MLS Cup. A step forward in my mind would be erasing that constant fear of the face plant.
Unfortunately, I see the Black & Gold taking a step back (on-field) this year. While I think offensively they will continue to perform highly, I believe there are some systemic defensive issues. With both fullbacks bombing forward, it often leaves the defense in bad situations and even with the upgrade of Sauro for a full year, I believe this weakness can be effectively exploited. Columbus will have a target on its backs, and teams will be looking to take advantage of the team's inherently unbalanced nature.
That being said, I can still see Crew SC contending for the East, but ultimately falling short, back in to the 2-4 range. There's not much to separate most of the East, so despite expecting a step back quality wise, I see the Black & Gold ending up in about the same place over the balance of the season, ultimately falling short of last year's playoff run.
Crew SC faithful have every reason to hope for their squad to be representing the Eastern Conference once again in the MLS Cup Final, mainly because the roster experienced relatively little upheaval and attrition during the offseason. Keeping Kamara and extending Ethan Finlay's contract were two monumental steps during said offseason toward recreating 2015's glory. Using those two stars to duplicate the offensive pace and resourceful midfield possession of last year is a great start. But realistically, so many things have to go JUST right for it to be a mortal lock, so I'd advise against placing bets on another berth in the Cup for the moment.
Think of last year: Columbus getting to host the final - opposed to Portland getting that honor - came down to a goal-differential boost they earned on Decision Day by destroying D.C. United 5-0, and they would have had to go to FC Dallas anyway if Portland hadn't managed to advance out of the West. So what I'm saying is so many things can change during late-season surges and lulls that no one can reasonably predict. But expectations are high because Columbus has most of the same tools at its disposal and Berhalter's 4-2-3-1 scheme will still be implemented very effectively.
Ultimately, I think it's a disservice to teams like the dominant New York Red Bulls, a healthy Toronto FC, the seemingly ever-competitive New England Revolution or Didier Drogba's Montreal Impact to say Crew SC is going to magically emerge out of the conference unchallenged. But it would absolutely be disappointing to the Capital City fan base if Crew SC doesn't win it all or a Supporters' Shield. My prediction is that one or the other will happen but not both. My gut tells me Columbus ends up being a terrifyingly potent 2nd or 3rd seed and enjoys a deep playoff run that features nailbitingly close aggregate results.
With the same starting line up (probably) for Crew SC as last year, a similar performance to last year seems likely. I expect to see an entertaining brand of attacking soccer that leads to one of the top offenses in MLS. The downside, is I expect a similar inconsistent defense to show up again.
I believe Crew SC will take a step back from last year. In order to be a consistent title contender a team needs to have a solid defense. Columbus has an erratic defensive system that leaves too many gaps at the back. They are too exposed on the counter attack and thus give up cheap goals. This can be overcome over the course of a long season, but in a short series cheap goals lead to a loss. I expect Crew SC to go out in the first round of the playoffs.
I predict Crew SC to finish 1st in the East, and flame out early in the postseason.