Production from the wings has been a big part of Columbus Crew SC’s playing system over the last years. It was not by accident that the Black & Gold had its most recent deep runs in the MLS Cup playoffs in 2015, when Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram combined for 20 goals and 13 assists, and 2017, when Meram registered alone 14 goals and 14 assists.
That wasn’t the case in 2018 and because of that, the Crew enters the offseason with an important question to answer: Will the team make any additions at the wing spots?
The Black & Gold currently have two veterans as the presumed starters at the wings, but while Pedro Santos failed to meet the expectations on his first full season with the club, Meram had a troubling year after he was traded to Orlando City SC and back to Columbus. Reasons aside, their limited combined production of just two goals and eight assists left the door open for changes.
With Santos, the issue seems to be more a misalignment between the expectations fans have about the Portuguese winger and what he can actually deliver. His seven assists are good enough for the second-best in the team, only behind Federico Higuain’s nine, but his pale presence inside the penalty box and limited ability to score goals make his offensive impact be perceived as subpar.
Santos has never been a scorer in his career, but his defensive work is very important for the balance of the team. He ranked fourth in tackles (1.9 per game) and was the only offensive player among the top-12 in interceptions (ninth, with 0.9). That, without a solid attacking game, though, might not be enough for the Crew.
With Meram, the consequences of a frustrating season have been evident. The Iraqi international reported for preseason with Crew SC, but requested a trade and was sent to Orlando. His tenure in Florida was unproductive – just one goal and three assists in 17 appearances – and troubling – he faced some unfriendly actions from the Lions fan base.
Sent back to Columbus, Meram was nowhere near the player he was in 2017, but with so many changes in a little over six months, that’s understandable. If Meram can combine for double digits in goals and assists, which he did in Columbus in four straight seasons, from 2014 to 2017, he will definitely be helpful.
Whoever ends up as Crew SC’s head coach in 2019 will have some alternatives to the veterans. Niko Hansen, Luis Argudo and Cristian Martinez have all showed flashes during 2018, but none of them seems to be ready to endure the demands of a full season in a contender.
The desire to add another attacking piece was repeatedly reinforced by head coach Gregg Berhalter during the 2018 season, but it’s unclear if that remains the case after Meram was brought back, consuming most of the allocation money Columbus had in stock.
One way or another, either bringing in new pieces or improving the production of Santos and Meram, the Crew needs to get more from its wide players. How it’s going to be done, that’s yet to be seen.