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Massive Predictions: 2018 Columbus Crew SC season

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How will the new year play out for the Black & Gold?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City at Columbus Crew Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer is back this weekend, which means we have a new Columbus Crew SC season.

The Black & Gold returned to the MLS Cup playoffs in 2017, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals before falling 1-0 on aggregate to eventual champions Toronto FC. Crew SC literally came within inches of hosting the title game, but that’s the game of soccer.

In 2018, Columbus hopes to take the next step, but will do so with a new look. As is the case every year, there are new players on the roster, but this season that is especially true.

The first chance to see this new-look Crew SC side will be Saturday against TFC in Toronto, but before we get to that, the Massive Report staff has some predicting to do.

What do we think about the 2018 season? Let’s have a look.

Who is the key returning play from 2017?

Patrick Murphy: I think there are a few answers here that would make sense, but I’m going with goalkeeper Zack Steffen. In his first year with Crew SC, he was good, but the 22 year old demonstrated greatness in the playoffs. This led to him making his first U.S. National Team appearance and should carry over into 2018. If the Black & Gold are to be successful, the team needs Steffen to make big saves and take another step in his young career.

Collin Johnson: Zack Steffen - Steffen ended the season on a tear and set the MLS world ablaze with his playoff performances. Steffen seemed to have made a huge leap as the season progressed and there’s no reason to think that he can’t continue to improve in 2018.

Josh Mlot: Artur. No doubt. The team was much better when he was on the field last year, and often lacked a spark and was more predictable when he was not. It will be interesting to see what he can do in Year 2, now that he is used to the league but the rest of the league also has film on him.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Pedro Santos. He may not have been the most productive player in his stint last season, but he has the potential to be one of the most influential players this season.

Guilherme Torres: Zack Steffen. The GK proved crucial for Crew SC in 2017 and his efforts should have even more impact this season with the team expected to have reduced firepower following the departures of Justin Meram and Ola Kamara

Patrick Guldan: Pedro Santos - The Portuguese winger was a late addition to the roster and stepped into the lineup quickly. He didn’t have the impact in terms of goals or assists, but will have to step up this year to shoulder some of the creative and goal-scoring burden out of the midfield. It will be a rough season for Columbus if he doesn’t make a bigger impact.

Sam Fahmi: Artur. The effect of having another player that speaks his language (Santos) and finally being comfortable in knowing that he is no longer on loan results in a more relaxed player.

Which of the team’s offseason additions will have the biggest impact in 2018?

Patrick Murphy: Gyasi Zardes is the obvious answer, but many believe he will score goals because all forwards score goals in Crew SC’s system. I’m going in a different direction with Mike Grella. I believe the winger, once healthy, is one of the best in MLS and will flourish in this more attacking, possession style that Gregg Berhalter plays.

Collin Johnson: Gyasi Zardes - If Zardes scores a ton of goals, like he has in the preseason, Crew SC will pick up right where they left off at the end of 2017. If Zardes is a bust, the Black & Gold will have to search for answers elsewhere. Either way, Zardes’ performance will have the biggest impact in 2018.

Josh Mlot: I feel like it has to be Gyasi Zardes, and if he’s not, Crew SC will be in trouble (barring the addition of another top-rate striker). I’m still skeptical. I’m not sold on Zardes nor that his preseason performances will translate to the regular season. But if I’m staying optimistic, I’ll say the system will set him up to be successful, and he is the most logical choice to be the impact signing — because his team needs him to be.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Gyasi Zardes. Milton Valenzuela is my favorite signing of the offseason but left backs often have less impact than strikers so I am going with Zardes here as he has looked very promising in preseason.

Guilherme Torres: Milton Valenzuela. I believe Zardes will do well, but even if he exceeds expectations it’s hard to believe he could surpass what Kamara did the last couple of years. Valenzuela, though, can add in one spot where Crew SC was okay to say the most in 2017.

Patrick Guldan: Gyasi Zardes - Crew SC needs goals after trading away Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. They look primed to get it out of Zardes. He’s a physical forward whose faults have overshadowed his talents. Now that he’s expected to lead the line, he’ll be deployed where he’s most dangerous, close to goal.

Sam Fahmi: Left back Young Designated Player Milton Valenzuela. Highly regarded coming in to MLS.

Who will lead the team in goals?

Patrick Murphy: It has to be Gyasi Zardes. Expected to be the team’s starting striker, he will be at the end of nearly every attack.

Collin Johnson: Gyasi Zardes - Multiple strikers have thrived in the Crew SC system so there is no reason to think that Zardes can’t continue that trend.

Josh Mlot: Gyasi Zardes. The question will be whether he leads the team with 15-20 goals (good), or 10ish goals (bad). But barring injury or another major signing, I think he’s in a position to bag the most goals.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Gyasi Zardes. This is a Gregg Berhalter team.

Guilherme Torres: Gyasi Zardes. The team’s system is designed for strikers and no midfielder on winger has impressive scoring abilities.

Patrick Guldan: Gyasi Zardes will be streaky, but will get to double digits. The team won’t end up missing Ola Kamara, just like they didn’t end up missing Kei Kamara.

Sam Fahmi: Gyasi Zardes

Who will lead the team in assists?

Patrick Murphy: I said Mike Grella will be the biggest addition and want to say he’ll lead the team in assists. But not knowing when he will be back from his knee injury could hinder him statistically early on. So I’m going with the easy answer here and picking Federico Higuain.

Collin Johnson: Pedro Santos - Santos made multiple key passes as he learned Gregg Berhalter’s system during the end of the 2017 season and will have a big target in Gyasi Zardes for 2018. I expect Santos to contribute double digit goals and assists in 2018.

Josh Mlot: Pipa. Federico Higuain proved last year he is still the linchpin of this attack, and I think he’ll continue to be. Though Pedro Santos may come close.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Pedro Santos. I expect his production to jump significantly this season.

Guilherme Torres: Federico Higuain. With Justin Meram gone, Crew SC’s chance creation will be even more centered on the Argentinean’s feet.

Patrick Guldan: Federico Higuain will roll back the years once again. At 33, he will still be the maestro for Gregg Berhalter’s flowing offensive scheme.

Sam Fahmi: Federico Higuain

Who is your offensive MVP?

Patrick Murphy: Here is where I give Gyasi Zardes his due. I think in his first year with Crew SC, he reaches at least 15 goals — though I gave the bold prediction on the podcast that he will be the MLS Golden Boot winner — and that’s enough to be the offensive MVP.

Collin Johnson: Federico Higuain - Higuain will have creative help in Pedro Santos and a backup in Eduardo Sosa, but the crafty Argentine is still the maestro of the Crew SC offense, and will once again be the most important piece of the front unit.

Josh Mlot: Federico Higuain. He is the engine.

Nathaniel Markhefka: Pedro Santos. He will fill in Justin Meram’s absence very well. He’s had time to settle in the team and it has shown in preseason

Guilherme Torres: Federico Higuain. He will have the most goals and assists combined of the entire roster.

Patrick Guldan: So goes Federico Higuain, so goes the Crew SC offense. That will be even more true in 2018. Without Justin Meram, Higuain will have to shoulder more of the creative load while being the player who controls the tempo. He’s certainly capable and he looked ageless last year. He remains as fit as ever and is primed for another outstanding late career season.

Sam Fahmi: Gyasi Zardes

Who is your defensive MVP?

Patrick Murphy: Jonathan Mensah is in need of a bounce-back year. Although he was improved over the final portion of 2017, he can be even better. I expect fans to see that this season with him more comfortable with his teammates and the Crew SC system.

Collin Johnson: Zack Steffen - If Steffen plays up to his ability, he can be the best defensive player in the entire league.

Josh Mlot: Wil Trapp. I say this because I think it all starts with him, and when he’s playing well he shields the back line and starts transition. Also, because there are so many center backs and right now I have no idea who is going to emerge, to be quite honest.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Gyasi Zardes. Yes, I think his defensive presence in the first defensive line will make a big change in how the team defends as a unit.

Guilherme Torres: Zack Steffen. For the same reasons explained on the first question.

Patrick Guldan: Milton Valenzuela will impress in his first season. His one-on-one defense will lock down the left side and provide more protection to the center backs who are often isolated in Gregg Berhalter’s system.

Sam Fahmi: Johnathan Mensah

Where in the Eastern Conference standings do you see Crew SC finishing 2018?

Patrick Murphy: I like this Crew SC team a lot more than apparently other people. There are certainly some question marks and holes to replaces, but Gregg Berhalter continues to prove he knows how to get his team going when it matters. I think the East is going to be really good again and that will hurt the Black & Gold. I say the team finishes no worse than fourth in the East.

Collin Johnson: Second. Toronto FC is still Toronto FC and has had an excellent offseason. While other Eastern Conference teams have improved (Orlando City and D.C. United specifically), Columbus has the talent to finish near the top of the conference.

Josh Mlot: I have a lot of questions. Justin Meram was a part of the heart and soul of this club, and Ola Kamara was SO good with his off the ball movement. There are reasons to remain positive, but I seem to be less sure than so many picking this team to finish in the top two or three in the East, which, by the way, is a beast. I’ll predict Columbus will finish fifth. This is definitely a playoff team, but to me there are two-three teams that are definitely ahead, and a few more who will be very good.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Third. This team will rally from last year’s disappointing start. I like the team better at this point in the season than last, even despite the departures of Justin Meram and Ola Kamara.

Guilherme Torres: Qualify for the playoffs and finish somewhere between second and sixth.

Patrick Guldan: The East is very tough. Toronto FC is the class, while Atlanta United and New York City FC have improved significantly. I think Crew SC will challenge for a top-three spot, but ultimately finish fourth after adding some firepower in the early season transfer window.

Sam Fahmi: Top three.

Who will be the biggest departure from last year’s team to this year’s?

Patrick Murphy: Justin Meram for sure. The team’s longest-tenured player is no longer in Columbus. Oh, and he was pretty good at what he did and an important piece to Gregg Berhalter’s system. I believe Crew SC can replace him, but it will be tough.

Collin Johnson: Justin Meram - Aside from Meram’s multiple goals and assists, his great personality will be missed on this team.

Josh Mlot: I’m a huge Ola Kamara guy, but I’ll go with Justin Meram. Like I said, he was at the heart of the team. He played with an edge, drew a ton of attention from opposing defenses and put in the work as a two-way player as well. With questions about Mike Grella’s status and a reliance on some younger guys in the meantime, I think Meram is the answer here.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Justin Meram. Ola Kamara was huge too, but Gyasi Zardes can replace him better than the Crew’s wingers filling in for Meram. Maybe Mike Grella can prove me wrong after he is healthy.

Guilherme Torres: Justin Meram. Ola Kamara was great last year, but Gyasi Zardes can partially replace his production. The team doesn’t have a proper replacement for Meram so far.

Patrick Guldan: The team will miss Justin Meram’s on the ball skills. His ability to create his own shot around the box was unparalleled on this team. He was also played underrated defense. He’s a complete player.

Sam Fahmi: Justin Meram

What percentage do you put on Crew SC staying in Columbus?

Patrick Murphy: I was very low on the chances initially, but problems in Austin, Texas have changed my mind a little bit. I still think if Precourt Sports Venture wants the team in Austin, the team will be in Austin. There are ways to make that work. I’ll go with 30% chance this team remains in Columbus.

Collin Johnson: Before Monday’s oddly timed announcement by Precourt Sports Ventures, I had the chances at 75% that the team remains in Columbus. While my hope is that Antony Precourt’s statement is a negotiation tactic for both Columbus and Austin, it seems like Precourt has no interest in keeping the Crew in Columbus. 45% chance of staying.

Josh Mlot: I still think it is 50/50 at this point. Every day I think the tide is turning one way or the other, it pulls right back the other way.

Nathaniel Marhefka: Next season? 72%. 2020 or 2021? 14.8%

Guilherme Torres: On short-term, I’d say 60%. Things are not working out well in Austin, so I think Crew SC stays for now but goes somewhere else when the 10-year clause expires.

Patrick Guldan: Owners who want to move their team’s usually do in America. It’s clear that Anthony Precourt wants to move to Austin, he just hasn’t done very well to make that happen. I’d still put it at 35% chance that the team stays.

Sam Fahmi: 35%