It's a little over two weeks to opening day for Columbus Crew SC and aside from a few Brazilians, no one has seen the team play. Three weeks of preseason has gone by and there have been just a few glimpses in highlights and three days of indoor training at SuperKick open to reporters. In an offseason of change, less is known about the team as it goes into the season than during any time in head coach Gregg Berhalter's tenure.
Normally, I try to use a black box method when analyzing the team. There's normally enough data to come to a firm conclusion. That isn't the case this year so I'm going to try and do something different. With uncertainty with even the formation, let alone nearly half the starting eleven, I'm going to guess. It will be an educated guess, complete with how I weigh my answers (superforcaster style). I'm also going to try and step through why I think Berhalter will make these decisions.
Will Crew SC have three or four at the back on opening day? Back four. Despite the talk of a back three, Berhalter will use the four-man back line and it comes down to Higuain. With a back three, he may have no natural position if Columbus plays a 3-4-3 like I'm thinking they might. If Higuain needs to be on the field, then the 4-2-3-1 is a natural fit. The other option is a 3-5-2, but Crew SC doesn't have the depth to play with two forwards over a long season. With only Ola Kamara and Adam Jahn on the roster, Berhalter would have to get creative with his other attackers, none of which are ideal fits at forward, especially as a default formation. (75% confident)
Who is the Crew SC starting goalkeeper? Brad Stuver. Berhalter has sounded less than confident about the situation, touting the raw skill of Zack Steffen, but not certain that he has the right makeup yet. Going into the offseason, there may have been an air of inevitability about Steffen at the beginning of preseason, but he hasn't locked down the spot. That leaves Stuver as the main alternative and one the staff knows very well. The third option isn't as likely. Trading for a starting goalkeeper would be difficult. Unlike Stuver (or Steffen) an outside addition to the roster would have to be comfortable with his feet and the Crew SC style of play. They are unlikely to find a player like that. (65% confident)
Who are the four new starters? Goalkeeper, Raitala, Abu, and Mensah. Goalkeeper is an obvious answer, as is Jonathan Mensah playing in central defense, but Berhalter has been very pleased with the performances of Jukka Raitala, and Mohammed Abu. Waylon Francis returns for a fourth season, but it his contract was guaranteed rather than an option picked up. His return isn't necessarily indicative of the staff's opinion of him. The team also spent a significant amount in transfer fee (and likely) salary for Abu. Berhalter talked about his quick adaption of the team's style whereas Tony Tchani struggled through the 2016 season. Another player that Berhalter sounds high on is Sao Paulo loanee Artur. Maybe he's not a starter now, but unlike Cristian Martinez last season, Berhalter seems to see him as a player for this year. (80% confident)
I’ve also pieced together a couple depth charts based only off of Berhalter’s words this past week. Reading from tea leaves may be more accurate.
First my thoughts on Berhalter’s 4-2-3-1.
And my guess at a (Higuainless) 3-4-3:
Now for the 3-man backline. I see it as a 3-4-3 for deployment when Higuain is not available. pic.twitter.com/dNXTM0arKY— Patrick Guldan (@GuldanMR) February 17, 2017
In trying to answer the big questions surrounding Crew SC as they head into the Carolina Challenge Cup, I’m betting at least one (if not more) of my answers is wrong. Those games will be the first time that fans will get to see what Berhalter and company have been working this preseason. Each of my questions should be answered by the time Columbus finishes up against the Seattle Sounders on Februray 25th. Or in other words, in a little over a week, fans won't have to guess what Crew SC are going to do when they take on the Fire on March 4th.
Provide your educated guesses or point out where mine are wrong below.