After the disappointment that was 2016, fans, players and coaches alike cannot wait for the start of the new Columbus Crew SC seasons.
There have been changes galore in order to get this team back to the expectations of the first two years of the Gregg Berhalter era and Saturday afternoon marks the first time we get to see the new-look Black & Gold in real action.
The Chicago Fire come to MAPFRE Stadium to kick off the new year. Like Columbus, the Fire have made a number of moves in order to improve on the last place finish so this opening game should be interesting for both fanbases.
There is still a lot to learn about Crew SC, but preseason predictions aren’t always about being right, but rather what we see heading into the year.
Let’s see what the staff thinks heading into 2017.
Who is the key returning player for Crew SC from 2016?
Kris Landis: Federico Higuian will once again be the make or break player for this team. He is the man who makes it all go for this Crew offense, so his play will be vital.
Nick Clarkson: Justin Meram. Some believed the Iraq international would leave Columbus in the off season, however, Meram returns for his seventh season with Crew SC. The midfielder led the Black & Gold with 13 assists in 2016, and finished second on the team for shots with 76 — behind only Ola Kamara. Despite ending the season with only five goals, Meram's presence and ability to play dangerous crosses into the penalty area from the wing will again be vital for the Crew SC offense this season. Overall, if the 28 year old continues to be aggressive on the attack, he has the ability to reach double-digit goals for the first time in his career.
Josh Mlot: I struggled to decide between Federico Higuain and Ethan Finlay. A return to borderline USMNT pool guy is really needed after a season of borderline MLS starter guy for Finlay, and I think it would go a long way toward returning the Black & Gold closer to 2015 form. But Pipa is so critical to the tempo of the team, and when he's on he's a difference maker. I don't know how much more he has in the tank, so I'll say one more year of healthy, strong Higuain will allow Crew SC to re-find some of its attacking magic - he'll put his teammates in better positions to score. Really, I think I found a way to split my vote there.
Sam Fahmi: Federico Higuain. A fully healthy and very hungry Higuain for 25 games or more could spell major problems for opposing teams who, more often than not, have had little success in stopping him when he is ON.
Patrick Guldan: Federico Higuain - Crew SC look better with the Argentine playmaker running the offense. Justin Meram doesn’t have to shoulder the full playmaking duties, Ethan Finlay is more dangerous with Pipa sending balls through, and Ola Kamara is going to have more chances to score. Yes, Berhalter has a plan B with the 3-man backline, but it’s not as effective as plan A with Higuain running the show.
Nathaniel Marhefka: The key returning player for me is Ola Kamara. With a standout season in 2016, I expect him to bring even more in the new season and will be a constant threat in front of goal.
Patrick Murphy: Federico Higuain is the obvious, and probably the correct, answer. He pulls the strings and we saw what happened last year when he didn’t feature regularly for Crew SC. I’m going to go with Ethan Finlay though. Higuain certainly impacts him, so maybe the two go hand in hand, but the team is better when Finlay is dangerous. Last year he struggled to get going, but in talking to him, I think you’re going to see a motivated and reenergized Ethan this season. At least Crew SC fans hope.
Which of the team's offseason additions will have the biggest impact in 2017?
Kris Landis: Jonathan Mensa will likely be the most impactful signing, though I think Jukka Raitala will prove to be a real key cog as well.
Nick Clarkson: Jonathan Mensah. Acquired by Columbus as a Designated Player on Jan. 3, Mensah will be a critical piece to a defense that allowed 58 goals last season — tied for the second most in Major League Soccer. The Ghanain will likely play center back with Nicolai Naess in 2017, and possibly on the same side as right-back and international teammate Harrison Afful. If this backline can quickly become comfortable with each other and their styles of play, they will lead this team to the success it had during a runner-up finish in 2015.
Josh Mlot: I want it to be that one of the new central mids proves to help shield the back line and help in transition. But there's a lot of question marks about those unproven guys, and we know Berhalter has been loyal to Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp. So I'll go Jonathan Mensah. He's on DP money so he better make an impact, right? My hope is that he combines with Nicolai Naess to finally form the stable — and mobile — center back pairing we've been looking for throughout Berhalter's tenure (though his system will still leak goals at a higher rate than many).
Sam Fahmi: It will be very hard to ignore the potential that Jonathan Mensah could bring to the table in a new league. If he has as much impact as Harrison Afful did when he came on, this could spell very good things for this defense.
Patrick Guldan: Jonathan Mensah would be a good answer and he’ll make a difference, Mohammed Abu will too, but I’m going with my gut that Artur will fundamentally change how Crew SC are able to play with his impact in central midfield when he finally sees the field. Perhaps it won’t be the biggest impact, but it will be the most unexpected when it finally happens.
Nathaniel Marhefka: Of the new signings the biggest in price and in value is certainly Jonathan Mensah. A high-profile signing, he will add a comfortable presence on the backline. Crew SC has struggled defensively during Berhalter's tenure but the manager is making moves to change that — Jonathan is the hallmark of these changes.
Patrick Murphy: Jonthan Mensah, easy. He’s been with the team for about two weeks and is already a comfortable looking starter (based on our preseason viewings) and voted to the team’s new leadership council. Jonathan, along with Nicolai Næss and a new approach, should help what has been a leaky defense. If the Black & Gold concede less goals, it will go a long way for the overall success.
Who will lead the team in goals?
Kris Landis: Ola Kamara
Nick Clarkson: Hands down, Ola Kamara. The Norweigian netted 16 goals in 20 starts last season, and finished in a three-way tie for fifth in the MLS Golden Boot race. Although he may lose some time on the pitch with a taller Adam Jahn still on the roster, Kamara's abilities as a striker will be seen a number of times on the scoresheet as he will again score at least 15 goals. However, Kamara will ultimately finish in the top-5 in the Golden Boot race again along with players like Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sebastian Giovinco.
Josh Mlot: Ola Kamara. There's no other forward on the roster to really push him (I think this is an issue), and I think his numbers were legit last year, even if he doesn't replicate that rate. Still, the underlying numbers indicate his prolific strike rate was not a fluke, and I think having Pipa back will only help him.
Sam Fahmi: Any answer other than Ola Kamara is probably someone that is not on this roster at this moment.
Patrick Guldan: Ola Kamara, or the season will be a failure. No player on the roster can get into goal scoring position as well as the Norwegian forward. He makes the right runs and gets off shots that other players flub. If Kamara isn’t leading the team in scoring, then the 2017 season will fail in the same way 2016 did.
Nathaniel Marhefka: Leading goalscorer will likely be Ola Kamara. While I hope to see the likes of Meram, Pipa, and Finlay on the scoreboard more often, the nature of the offense tends to favor center forwards as goal-getters. Here's to hope that he even improves on his 16-goal tally of last season.
Patrick Murphy: Radamel Falcao. Kidding (shoutout to my guy Alex Stanek). Ola Kamara is the guy. He showed what he can do last year and while defenses will make adjustments to him in his second season, he’s good enough to still get close to his total of 16 goals a year ago, if not more with increased playing time.
Who will lead the team in assists?
Kris Landis: Federico Higuain
Nick Clarkson: Ethan Finlay. After scoring 12 goals and notching 13 assists in 2015, Finlay struggled throughout the most of last season — ending with just six goals and nine helpers. Despite this, Finlay will again become one of the top wingers in MLS in 2017, and reach at least a double-digit assist mark through his speed down the sideline and vision into the passing lanes.
Josh Mlot: Federico Higuain. If he stays healthy (which might not happen). I don't think it will be by much, though. I say he finishes with nine assists and Justin Meram finishes with eight.
Sam Fahmi: Justin Meram
Patrick Guldan: A healthy Federico Higuain will once again shoulder the playmaking duties. That means Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay’s assist totals will be a little lower. Without having to focus on creating, Meram should be scoring more while Finlay and Kamara will have plenty of chances to finish off Higuain passes.
Nathaniel Marhefka: Leading in assists will be a healthy Federico Higuain. The team has stated that they are looking to get "Pipa" more involved in attacks and while he will likely grab 5+ goals, his passing in the final third is exquisite. Also playing in to this is a slight style change from last season as the team will likely be looking to develop more attacks through the center rather than relying solely on byline crosses.
Patrick Murphy: Harrison Afful. I have not always been high on Afful because I think he leaves a lot of space behind him and doesn’t get back defensively, but you can’t deny what he does in the attack. He’s not the most accurate crosser, but he will send probably more balls into the penalty box than other players on the team. More chances means more goals and I think he will provide the most helpers.
Who is your offensive MVP?
Kris Landis: Federico Higuain
Nick Clarkson: Ola Kamara. As stated above, Kamara will be the top scorer for Crew SC this season while also throwing in a handful of assists. The 27 year old will continue to grow as a player and as an important piece of this Black & Gold roster — and you will definitely see his name in Golden Boot and MVP talks down the stretch of the season.
Josh Mlot: By virtue of my earlier responses, I guess I go Higuain. Even when Pipa isn't scoring the goal or making the final pass, his vision and IQ allows him to control the tempo of the game, which is something Columbus often missed when he was out.
Sam Fahmi: Ola Kamara
Patrick Guldan: I’ve talked a lot about Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara and both will need to perform if Crew SC are going to climb back into the playoffs. However, Kamara may prove the most irreplaceable and his MLS Golden Boot level of goal scoring in 2017 will pull the team back up the table and into playoff position.
Nathaniel Marhefka: Offensive MVP will be Ola Kamara. I am slating him for a 19-goal season, and if he achieves just that he will unquestionably be the most valuable offensive player.
Patrick Murphy: Federico Higuain. If healthy, he’s the best offensive player on the team and up there with the tops in the league. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Pipa at his peak form, but with him as hungry as he’s discussed (and shown) in the preseason, I think he’ll get back to the form fans remember.
Kris Landis: Nicolai Naess
Nick Clarkson: Harrison Afful. In his second season with the Black & Gold, Afful recorded three goals and three assists in 30 starts and was ranked as MLSsoccer.com’s top right back in the League. With international teammate Jonathan Mensah joining the Crew SC defense in the offseason, Afful will continue to thrive on the right side of the defense by creating opportunities for others to score with his pace and capability of firing dangerous crosses into the opposing penalty area.
Josh Mlot: Nicolai Naess. I know Mensah was the big offseason signing, but I think Naess' familiarity with the system and his versatility sets him up to be the leader back there. I'm anxious to see what he does in a full season.
Sam Fahmi: It’s going to have to be Mensah. You don’t see many teams in MLS dropping DP money on defenders. He has to prove that he is worth that designation and cash.
Patrick Guldan: Jonathan Mensah, the Ghanian DP will live up to the lofty expectations. He will perform admirably in one v. one situations while providing a much needed boost in the air. His presence on defensive set pieces will help stop the problems that Crew SC had on corners and free kicks. The defense won’t be league leading, but it will be reliable rather than blown out. Much of that will come down to Mensah.
Nathaniel Marhefka: A bit tougher. Last season I had Nico Naess as the team MVP and I think this season the only reason that would change would be by dominate performances by Jonathan, but Raitala has the potential to be electric on the wing. Add in Naess' passing ability and comfort in the attack, and I will tip him the projected defensive MVP.
Patrick Murphy: It should be Jonathan. He is the Designated Player and the new signing, but I think Nicolai Næss will end up getting the nod. He’s got a head start in MLS play over his partner and has already shown how good he is a center back (and other spots). I think his solid play will continue alongside Jonathan.
Where do you see Crew SC finishing this season?
Kris Landis: Fourth or fifth in east, but possibly making a solid playoff run as things gel down the stretch.
Nick Clarkson: Columbus Crew SC will return to the playoffs in 2017 by finishing third or fourth in the Eastern Conference behind Toronto FC and New York City FC. Gregg Berhalter’s squad will reach its second Eastern Conference Finals in three years, but will fall short of another trip to the MLS Cup after losing to the Reds and Seba.
Josh Mlot: I think they can bounce back, but I'm not convinced it's to the top half of the Eastern Conference. I think the conference is deep and it's going to be a battle, but I think Crew SC will finish fifth or sixth, though that means it may be a nervy battle for a playoff spot. That's me trying to balance preseason optimism with my natural cynicism.
Sam Fahmi: Barring significant injuries and should things go somewhat as we predict they could, I see Crew SC finishing in the top 3 in the East. At the very minimum, this team makes the playoffs.
Patrick Guldan: Crew SC will improve over 2016 substantially. The rest of the East hasn’t stood still. Chicago improved considerably this offseason, NYCFC added some complimentary pieces, D.C. United was strong down the stretch, but Berhalter identified the big needs this team had and did well to address them. An improved defense behind a quality offense will push Columbus to third in the Eastern Conference.
Nathaniel Marhefka: Better than last season. I see the team making the playoffs but going out in the first round. An improvement from last year, but while the team has made several positive additions to the team I still need convinced in the overall team setup and cohesion to make me believe they will go any further. But please prove me wrong!
Patrick Murphy: I envision a major bounce-back year for Crew SC assuming health, which is a huge concern in MLS. I believe the team we saw last year fell well short of its potential and this year’s group is an improved bunch. The Eastern Conference will not be easy, but I think some of the changes Columbus made will help them rise to a second or third place finish and an Eastern Conference Finals trip. From there, my predictions stop and we’ll see what happens.
Give us your thoughts.
Who will shine for Crew SC? Where do you see the team finishing? Get the conversation going in the comment section below.