Major League Soccer’s 2018 season is still just under two months away but the rosters of several teams are already taking shape. Columbus Crew SC is no exception and, even though the club did not make many moves so far, it managed to keep most of its core from last season, requiring only some minor adjustments to be ready.
The Black & Gold already have 23 players signed for 2018 and could add another three or four in the upcoming weeks including local signings, international athletes and draft picks. To help you understand where the roster stands, we have analyzed each position of the squad:
Zack Steffen is the undisputed starter between the posts and will return for his second full season with Crew SC arguably as one of the best goalkeepers in the league. Jon Kempin was signed likely to be his backup, replacing Brad Stuver, who did not have his option picked up, and is the oldest goalkeeper on the roster at 24.
The third goalkeeper spot will again be filled by Logan Ketterer, who was recently re-signed by the club. As happened in 2017, the focus will probably be on his development, meaning it is likely he does not see the field again this season.
All five center-backs who were part of the 2017 roster are returning in Designated Player Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, Alex Crognale, Lalas Abubakar and Gaston Sauro, this one on a new contract. This group provides a good mix of veterans and young defenders and all of them, expect Sauro, who was sidelined for the entire season, performed well in 2017.
With exactly the same players back, it seems that the Argentinean will also be the wild card here, a player with potential to be a starter, but also huge question marks regarding his health after playing only 13 matches in the last two seasons. If Sauro is fit and ready to contribute, Crew SC could have an upgrade in this area. If not, the team's backline will probably be as solid as it was in 2017, which was decent, but not great.
The right side is decently covered with Harrison Afful as the obvious starter and Connor Maloney as his backup. Hector Jimenez, primarily a midfielder, has been often used there as well and has proven to be a viable option.
The left side, on the other hand, is totally open with the offseason departures of both Waylon Francis and Jukka Raitala. Crew SC has no specialists at the left back position so far and Jimenez is the only player on the roster used to play there, meaning that at least two players should be signed to what is the only spot in the starting lineup where there is a clear need for players. At least one starting-caliber player needs to be added and his backup could be a young prospect, such as Argentinean Milton Valenzuela, with who the club has already been linked.
Crew SC did its homework and wasted no time in the offseason making sure Artur would return in 2018. With the Brazilian and captain Wil Trapp playing side by side, the Black & Gold have one of the most talented center midfield tandems in MLS. Ghanaian Mohammed Abu is more than a decent backup coming off the bench and one who can rotate pretty well with the starters when they are injured or suspended. A fourth option would be welcomed, but the club should not put much of a focus on it. A draft pick or an inexpensive player would be more than enough to fill this role.
Federico Higuain is returning for one more season with Crew SC but, at 33, the coaching staff needs to be smart to use the gas he has left in the tank in the most productive way. That's apparently why the Black & Gold signed Venezuelan Eduardo Sosa, a 21-year-old midfielder who can not only back Pipa up, but also start in his place once in a while, saving the veteran’s legs for when it matters. Cristian Martinez is also around, but he needs to keep developing to earn more minutes.
With Pedro Santos on the right and Justin Meram on the left, Crew SC has two wingers that fit the team’s system pretty well even though the Portuguese needs to show more in his second season with the club. Reports are that Meram has asked to move on, but until a move is made, he’s inked in as a starter on the left.
Kekuta Manneh, the primary backup option for both sides in 2017, is gone and Mike Grella was brought to fill his shoes. The former New York Red Bulls winger has the talent to do so, but his physical condition is a question mark after a serious knee injury last year. Niko Hansen showed promise in his rookie season, but having one more option available – and that could even be Sosa if he’s capable of filling in on the wings occasionally – would not hurt.
In Ola Kamara, Crew SC has one of the most efficient forwards in the league. The Norwegian striker is expected to keep doing his things inside the penalty box in 2018 and the biggest question in this area resides behind him. Will the Black & Gold keep relying on Adam Jahn, who failed to prove he can be more than just an aerial threat in the limited minutes he had on the field, or will them pursue a more versatile and lethal weapon to bring some firepower off the bench when needed?
Like Meram, Kamara is believed to want out of Columbus, but also remains on the roster for now.