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Columbus Crew SC mid-Season progress reports: Midfielders

How has the center of the field performed for the Black & Gold?

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC
Columbus midfielder has had a resurgent season for the Black & Gold.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re halfway through our mid-season progress reports. We began at the back, first focusing on goalkeeper Zack Steffen, then the defenders.

In this installment, we take a look at how the Columbus Crew SC midfielders have performed in the first half of the 2017 season.

There have been both highlights and lowlights among this critical unit for the Black & Gold.

Here’s a breakdown of those performances and how they stack up, in alphabetical order.

(Note: This piece will focus on the players who have plied their trade in Columbus. So Marshall Hollingsworth, Christian Martinez, Abuchi Obinwa, Rodrigo Saravia and Ben Swanson have, not surprisingly, not been included. In addition, you can find Kekutah Manneh in the striker report.)


Mohammed Abu

A newcomer for Crew SC this season, Abu hasn’t exactly gotten off to a glorious start with the club. In fact, many would argue they’ve seen enough of the Ghanaian, who has played more than 700 minutes in 12 appearances, including seven starts.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Minnesota United FC
Mohammed Abu
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

His arrival brought the promise of a more experienced, deeper central midfield, but Abu has struggled to settle in and his skills haven’t seemed to quite complement the players around him. On the surface, the center mid appears to be at his best recovering the ball and cycling it, but has often struggled with the pace and physicality of MLS.

Abu isn’t the type of player who is going to rack up statistics, but more worrisome are the noticeable errors. And his expected passing numbers in the defensive third are concerning, as his xP differential is -7.1 percent — not something you want to see in your own end from a deep-lying midfielder.

His final game before the break, against Minnesota, may have been his most comfortable, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

He has not yet appeared to be the type of player that can help the Black & Gold reach the playoffs.

Grade: D

Artur

Another new face for the Columbus midfield, Artur needed little time to fit into the unit and ingratiate himself to fans.

The young Brazilian, who is on loan from Sao Paulo, has posted more than 1,000 minutes in 15 games, including 12 starts, but did miss some time due to injury. His absence was often noticeable.

Artur has complemented partner Wil Trapp well, playing a box-to-box role in which he buzzes around the midfield and is adept at both breaking up plays with a tackle as well as driving forward quickly with the ball at his feet to transition play. That’s a skillset that has been lacking for the Black & Gold and has made a positive impact on the team.

The central midfielder leads the team in tackles per game and is third behind only Federico Higuain and Justin Meram in attacking dribbles per game — combined, those two numbers perfectly encapsulate what Artur has brought to the field.

Grade: B+

Ethan Finlay

It’s become clear that the true Finlay is probably not his immense two-year stretch from 2014-15. It’s important to adjust expectations from that.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Columbus Crew SC
Ethan Finlay
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With that in mind, Finlay has seemed to step up his game from last year, even if the numbers don’t necessarily play that out. For the now-veteran winger, his contributions have often come in ways that aren’t counted on the stat sheet — his willingness to work two ways on the wing, his pace and the runs that create space for teammates.

On the eyeball test, Finlay has been better in 2017 than some of the lower moments of the past year.

His final ball has been a letdown at time, which appears to be the missing piece of the puzzle for him.

Finlay has played in 17 games with the 13 starts and nearly 1,200 minutes, and continues to be a favorite of Berhalter. Right now, neither Kekutah Manneh nor Niko Hansen seems ready to steal that regular starting spot from Finlay.

Still, with just one goal and one assist, the right-wing spot is one that has the potential to have more production squeezed out of it than Finlay is providing right now.

Grade: C+

Niko Hansen

The rookie MLS Superdraft selection surprised might have surprised a little with how quickly he was ready to contribute, but, as might be expected for a young player, it’s been an up-and-down ride for the winger.

It’s hard to be too negative about Hansen, but there certainly hasn’t been a high level of consistency. He’s continued to be a regular substitute for Gregg Berhalter with the potential to spark the attack and a willingness to pitch in defensively.

His role has taken a slight step back as the season has progressed and his ceiling may not be incredibly high, but Hansen has been a solid depth player so far, if not one to pin many hopes on.

Grade: C+

Federico Higuain

At the beginning of the season, many people seemed ready to write off Higuain as past it (Note: This writer was not one of them). He has firmly answered those critics in 2017.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC
Federico Higuain
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The 32-year-old Argentinian playmaker has found a new jump in his step this season, starting 18 games so far and playing more than 1,500 minutes. In the process, he is tied for the team lead in goals with nine and is second in assists with six. He leads the team — by a wide margin — with 37 key passes (a pass that leads to a shot), which is seventh in MLS.

Those numbers bear out what we’ve seen on the field — Higuain has often shown classic form. He has not been flawless, and sometimes his willingness to try things backfires, but that trait is also the key to his skillset and he has once again been a critical playmaker and tempo-setter for the Black & Gold.

The big question is can he keep it up for the full season? But so far it’s hard to complain.

Grade: A

Justin Meram

For many, including myself, Meram was the team’s MVP in 2016 — a lone bright spot during a mostly dismal year in the Crewniverse.

It’s mostly been more of the same in 2017.

There have been momentary dips, but the winger has established himself as an impact attacking player both on the left side or when he finds space more centrally, with a willingness to play in tight spaces, take defenders on and find his teammates.

There are still the occasional moments of forced balls and less-than-perfect decision-making, but the highs far outweigh the lows for Meram.

He leads the team with six assists and is second in goals with eight in 20 games (including 19 starts). He’s second in key passes and leads the team in successful attacking dribbles (2.3 per game). He’s top-20 in the league in expected goals (5.42) and is 13th in MLS in xG + xA.

And his defensive contributions are often overlooked.

Last year may have been Meram’s breakout season, but 2017 has been the year the rest of the league has caught on to how good he has been.

Grade: A-

Wil Trapp

The captain has quietly become somewhat of a divisive character, with some who believe he is critical to what Columbus does and others believing he represents an unimpressive link in a Black & Gold chain that has failed to fully click, and who could and should be replaced.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati
Wil Trapp
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

As someone who has long believed in Trapp’s essential contributions to the club and Berhalter’s system, I still believe in the 24-year-old’s ability. But as his progression seems to have stalled, I understand the restlessness from some fans.

I still believe, though, he tends to be underrated.

Often dropping into the back line to help defensively and to start transition, Trapp’s 12.3 touch percentage (the amount of the team’s touches that he makes) is one of the highest usage rates in MLS. His 92-percent passing in the middle of the field is third in MLS among players with more than 300 passes there (he’s attempted 746, which is third in the league), just ahead of the Seattle SoundersOsvaldo Alonso, who has long been considered one of the gold standards of defensive midfielders in the league. He is second on the team in tackles per game (2.5) and has played more minutes (1,775) than anyone else on the team.

Everything runs through Trapp, and he is a critical ball circulator with the ability to make a midfield-cutting pass that sparks the transition.

Trapp began the season with a string of mostly excellent performances; since then he’s been a little less consistent. There still seems to be room for maturation and polish, and Columbus may need that to pick up its performance level.

Grade: B