Last season was not one many Columbus Crew SC fans are going to remember fondly. After back-to-back playoff appearances and a run to MLS Cup in 2015, the club finished with a losing record and six points out of a postseason spots.
One issue for the Black & Gold was the lack of Federico Higuain.
The Argentinian playmaker is a key cog in the Crew SC offense, but played in only 20 games, his fewest since his debut season of 2012, due to sports hernia injury.
“My injury, that was very bad,” Higauin recently stated on conference call from Columbus’ preseason trip to Brazil. “I’m a guy who always wants to be on the pitch, who always wants to be playing important in my role. That was my first time in my whole career that one injury took me off the field. So that was a bad moment.
“It took me almost four months out of the field. That never is nice for a player. I’m really excited to play, to be able to play good soccer in this team and show what I did when I was hurting.”
The return of Higuain will be a welcomed one for the Black & Gold.
Without its No. 10 in 2016, Crew SC still managed to score 58 goals, but that was only middle of the pack offensively in Major League Soccer.
The biggest deficiency though was on the defensive side of the ball, somewhere Columbus also dealt with injuries.
“I believe last year we were very unlucky about injuries,” Higuain said. “Some players make a difference on the field. We lose a guy like Gaston, who’s a pretty important player for us and I think we saw that. We lost Waylon. We have a lot of national team players.”
Center-back Gaston Sauro, who arrived towards the end of 2015 and was a factor in helping the team reach the MLS Cup Final, appeared in only 13 matches while dealing with a left knee injury.
Left back Waylon Francis managed through a shoulder injury during much of last year and played in only 19 games after being named an All-Star the season prior.
Both of those played a factor in the Black & Gold’s 58 goals allowed, tied for second-worst in MLS.
For 2017, Crew SC hopes to improve defensively.
The defense will look different with center-back Michael Parkhurst no longer with the club and Sauro out for the season due to more needed surgeries on his knee. Tyson Wahl also retired and Corey Ashe and Chad Barson departed.
This is not to say the group can’t be improved.
Columbus added Ghanian national team defender Jonathan Mensah as its second Designated Player, veteran Josh Williams, wingback Jukka Raitala as well as rookie central defenders Alex Crognale and Lalas Abubakar.
There is talk of a change in formation, which is something the Black & Gold have experimented with while in Brazil, but Higuain believes there is a simple solution to the defensive woes.
“We know we must be more aggressive when we don’t have the ball, that’s simple,” he said. “Because the other part of the game, I think we did very well. When we talk about creating chances, when we talk about movement behind the line, I think we are one of the best teams in this league. But when we don't have the ball, maybe we are one of the worst.
“It’s not about the defenders or central midfielders, it’s about the whole team. I believe in soccer that it is playing for 11 guys, not one, two or three guys. As a team, we know that we are good players and we know that we are better when we play all together.”
The return of Higuain in 2017 will help the team as a whole. He is a dynamic player who not only helps create those attacking opportunities, but also plays a part in possession, which keeps the opponent from creating attacking chances.
Crew SC also believes the additions, and a renewed focus on defensive shape and structure, will help return the club to the success it and the supporters expect in the coming season.