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.
In this addition, we asked our staff who we thought would be the club's MVP come the end of the season. Here are their responses.
The easy choice is Kei Kamara, but it's also a wise choice. Kei probably won't get to 22 goals, but he's instrumental in other ways. He's a tireless target that the offense revolves around. His passing is excellent and he has very good field vision. Even if his shooting touch leaves him, those other skills won't fade. In short, he's far more than the goals.
I think it will be Ethan Finlay. Having finally gotten that national team call, I feel that he will play even harder to secure another call and a cap is something more than a friendly.
Last season, Federico Higuain took a step back from his typical production - didn't hit double digit goals for the first time in two years - but I expect that to change in 2016. Higuain's role was different last year because Kei Kamara was scoring all the goals and he didn't have to, but since I think Kei regresses some, Pipa is a prime candidate to fill the gap. Also, I don't think he misses as many penalty kicks and really he's the team's most valuable player anyway.
If Kei scores 18-20 goals again, it's hard to not say he's the team's MVP. Ethan Finaly once again out-paced some of his expected output (this time in assists) so there's some question in my mind whether he continues to develop or whether he's just a really good MLS winger and that's his ceiling. If he continues to develop - maybe his USMNT sniff provides an extra carrot - he has MVP potential. And I think a resurgent Fedrico Higuain would be absolutely huge for Columbus. Berhalter's wide-centric attack means his numbers may not be huge, but for him to be consistently ("consistent" being the key and what he wasn't always last season) dangerous would open up things for everyone.
But we already know the team will be dangerous attacking, and we know that for the team to take a step forward it's other places where progress needs to be made. That concept colors my unsexy pick of Wil Trapp. He continues to quietly improve and, one can hope, won't be hampered by injury/concussion this time around. He may not be flashy enough to be a typical MVP pick, but he's so important to this team. His forward ball movement is critical if subtle in allowing this team to transition into the attack, and he protects a back line that is so often exposed by GB's system. If he can help to provide defensive balance for this squad, it could be more important than anything else Crew SC does. To my mind, there was a huge difference in the two-way midfield when he was on the field versus when he was not. He won't post MVP numbers, but that won't change his value. And I'd bet on Trapp making more strides this season than Finlay.
This team will live and die by Wil Trapp. If he plays at a high level, he may help mitigate some of the defensive issues I alluded to in the last question. If he struggles or misses time, the Black & Gold will struggle along with (or without) him.\
The obvious choice for would-be MVP is Kamara. The guy has literally said he wouldn't still be playing professional soccer had Crew SC hoisted hardware this past December, so the fact that he's back says to me he's going to be a more passionate leader and motivator than ever before because that desire for the ultimate prize is going to fuel him to expect more out of his teammates. But two crucial players that Kamara needs at their peak in order to succeed himself are Federico Higuaín and Michael Parkhurst. The Argentine No. 10 directs traffic underratedly well and seems to elevate the level of play taking place around him when he's in a groove, and his role in taking set pieces means many a header from Kamara in the box will originate from Higuaín's boot. Parkhurst, meanwhile, must ensure that a back line that vulnerably deploys its outside backs forward frequently stays focused and neutralizes league offenses. This will help Kamara's touches for a goal or a brace to potentially be the decisive margin of victory for Crew SC in tight contests.
If the Black & Gold are going to win the MLS Cup, the MVP must be Steve Clark. He is going to face a barrage of shots and is going to have to stand on his head like he did in the 2014 season if Columbus wants to win big games. That being said. I think the MVP will be Kei Kamara he is the focal point of the offense and carried Columbus by himself for long stretches last year.