First, the standard plug and play:
This is your run of the mill Crew SC lineup. Every spot on the field is filled by the player that has regularly filled it (even if you call into question whether that's Tony Tchani at this very moment), in the familiar 4-2-3-1 we've seen under Gregg Berhalter.
The only change is that there is now an 'O' in front of 'Kamara,' as Ola Kamara steps in as the starting No. 9.
Soccer journalist Kristan Henage offered some insight into what we might get from the newer Kamara, who has seen a few spot minutes for the Black & Gold, but not enough to be a known commodity.
What's expected is that Ola will look to run the channels, perhaps pulling wider more often. Whereas Kei would hold up play or get into the box to get on the end of a cross, Ola provides the opportunity to drag defenders around more often. He may not overpower centerbacks athletically and aerially, the way Kei did, but his movement may help create space in a different way than Kei.
Federico Higuain will always float around the field, but he may find more success centrally now (he'll need to). There's also more opportunity for quick interplay between the attacking players.
The question is: Will Berhalter shift his instructions to take advantage of those things? That seems like a dumb question for a professional coach, but Gregg has been very consistent in the way he runs the team. His choice to move Kei out will force him to make some shifts, though not overhaul things.
Rather than make you read a bunch of numbers, let's suffice it to say that Kei Kamara is the best aerial attacker in the league. (Ironically, you could make a case for the New England Revolution's Juan Agudelo as in the top five; there's no way to know whether Columbus even attempted to get him in a swap.)
That is one of the biggest concerns with Kei's departure — on a team that attempts more crosses than any other in MLS, how do you replace that type of weapon? The answer is you don't. But consider the chicken-and-egg question: We know Berhalter's system is wing-heavy and cross-heavy, but how much of that has been simply because that's what GB wants to do and how much has been because GB saw he had a unique weapon up top and wanted to utilize it?
We'll assume it's a little of both, with Kei's presence certainly influencing the team's tendency to put in even more crosses than usual.
What this all comes down to is that Crew SC will have to adjust. It will have to keep the ball on the ground more. Conor Casey can play that sort of target forward (at a lower level), but at this point in his career can not regularly go 90 minutes. He's a midweek starter at best and late-game sub.
Even if nothing else changes personnel- or formation-wise, the Black & Gold will have to look to keep the ball on the ground more, get Higuain on the ball attacking centrally and have better interplay between the striker, attacking mid and wingers. It's pretty easy to imagine Pipa, Ola and Justin Meram frequently swapping spots and creating confusion with their movement.
Another option would be a 4-3-3:
This is really only a shift of the standard look, but the wingers play higher up and there's more freedom of movement for the defensive midfielders. I like Mohammed Saeid more than Tchani in a 4-3-3, which is why I include him here. (That's not to say Tchani can't play it or that the team doesn't benefit from his physicality.) Meram's development has taken him away from an out-and-out winger, but he will hedge toward the midfield more, whereas Finlay would push up more. The flow of movement means there are times this would play like a 4-4-2 and others like a 4-5-1, and I think that seamless movement is where this approach works well for the pieces involved.
These two types of looks are similar and interconnected, which is why they seem the most likely. The club didn't sign Ola Kamara to not use him, so expect he is the guy for at least the next seven weeks.
However, should the team be inclined to experiment, a 4-3-3 with a false 9 is one possibility:
Higuain has shifted more and more into a No. 10 role during his years in MLS, but he has very much played a secondary, deeper-lying striker in the past. In this 4-3-3 look he is now a false No. 9 who can score goals but who also drops deeper to help facilitate. This puts more onus on the wingers to be able to cut inside and attack. There are options at attacking mid in both Meram and Emil Larsen — Meram has played centrally at the international level and I think this is a role that would suit Larsen well, although we've yet to see what he might actually be capable of.
What you have is four attackers who are interchangeable, but there is still speed on the wings.
At the core, this formation is still connected to the 4-2-3-1 Berhalter runs now, but would require the biggest shift in ideology, because this is not a system in which you can bomb crosses into the box.
I cannot see the team going to a three-man back line right now. There are only three center backs on the roster, so the depth is not there. But because we can hypothetically discuss anything we want, here's a hypothetical 3-5-2:
In this look you sacrifice Finlay, plus I think you end up isolating Higuain a little bit. Although he can act as a striker, you also want the possibility of him creating for others, and there is less of that here than in other formations.
The options ahead
Here's what Crew SC got in return for Kei Kamara:
- $500k in allocation money
- 2016 international roster spot
- 2017 first-round draft pick
- 2018 second-round draft pick
- a percentage sell-on fee for Kamara
There's been some outcry about not getting anything in return for a guy who was the co-leader in goals scored last year. That's understandable but false. This is actually quite a big haul, it's just not tangible yet.
That means your reaction to what Columbus got in the trade automatically puts you in two camps: one that believes in Berhalter and the organization, and one that does not. If you believe that CCSC makes shrewd moves and does things in its best interest, then you should believe that the club can take a great bit of flexibility and turn it into players who really make a difference on the field. If you don't have faith that the club can do those things, then it's fair to say these things are worth less than a player who has proven something.
That amount of allocation money is nothing to sneeze at. It's enough to bring in a guy who would be the second-highest paid player on the team and pay him down out of DP range, or to just bring in a seven-figure DP. And thanks to the international spot, there's no limit as to where the technical staff can go find said player — the world is their oyster.
More than likely, the club turns this into two signings, at least one, if not both, of which would be the caliber of an impact player. Anthony Precourt showed a willingness to spend and roster multiple DPs, so there's reason to believe he'd again be willing. And while it might not (read: likely won't) be a recognizable name, that level of player should be a week-in and week-out starter who makes an impact.
CCSC just freed up a million dollars it can spend on a player in his prime, as opposed to one who said he almost retired.
Besides, while Kei Kamara was a fan favorite, to call him a big-name signing is laughable. He was a guy who had roots with the club, had a nice season with Sporting Kansas City and then ostensibly flamed out in England. Casual fans in central Ohio didn't wait in line to buy season tickets because Kei Kamara was on board. He's only thought of the way he is right now because of the season he had in a Crew SC uniform.
Not only are big-name players pricey, they also want big-name markets, and most have never heard of Columbus, Ohio, before. Columbus is not signing Nicklas Bendtner or Zlatan Ibrahimovic (so you like prolific strikers with a propensity to throw teammates under the bus?)
Seriously, guys, it's not happening.
The history of DP signings in this league has shown that relative unknowns at mid-level costs tend to be the best signings because the money spent is all for talent and not for marketing. You get a young player who hasn't made a name for himself yet; a South American player in his prime who's operated just outside the international player pool and would like the stability of a paycheck in the U.S.
Just last week, GhanaWeb reported that Egyptian club Ismaily rejected an offer from Crew SC for Ghanaian striker Emmanuel Banahene. (As an aside, if this report is to be believed, going after a striker a week ago lends credence to the reports that Columbus and New England had discussions regarding Kamara even before the weekend controversy.)
Whether it's just a bunk rumor or not, it's the type of signing the club has traditionally made — a guy without an international reputation, but one the club thinks fits.
Further down the line, draft picks are not just throwaways. While the draft has declined in value with the growth of the academy system, there is still some value there. Seven players taken in the first round of the 2015 draft are regular starters for their clubs, and a handful of others are contributors. Five of the top 12 players taken in the 2016 draft have already been starters, and two others have dealt with injuries that have limited their ability to make an impression.
And draft picks are assets that can be flipped in other deals that might bring in something the club values more.
It's unlikely at his age that Kamara is sold on at this point, but should he repeat last season and gain attention from a European club again, CCSC will get money from that sale that it can use however it wants.
You always want to win now, but tunnel vision can easily prevent you from winning later. Columbus is now set up with maximum flexibility.
It's possible the team completely sinks in the next two months, but it's possible that would have happened even with Kei Kamara on the roster. The season has been disappointing enough to believe that change is as likely to do some good as it is to make the bottom fall out of a boat that's already floating in low water.