The year of 2019 was a mixed bag for Columbus Crew SC fans. While there was a lot to be happy about off the soccer field, including the groundbreaking of the club’s new stadium, the team’s performance was not what most wished.
For the second time in six years, the Black & Gold didn’t qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs and saw their season end earlier than expected at the start of the month. It was a complicated campaign, but looking back at it, there are plenty of reasons to be confident that 2020 will be much better.
It will be the second year under new management
Any time a management change happens, regardless of the type of business in question, it takes time for things to settle and the Crew had to deal with new faces in not only one, but three crucial positions in 2020 as the club had new owners, new front office members and a new coaching staff in place.
The ownership and the front office, captained by arguably one of the best executives in MLS in Tim Bezbatchenko, have probably collected invaluable business and soccer-related information in 2019 and they will use it to operate in a more efficient way and build a stronger roster next season.
With head coach Caleb Porter, it was clear that he started the year trying to continue Gregg Berhalter’s work but switched gears during the season by adding new players and changing the team’s playing style. The foundation that was built and the likely arrival of new pieces that fit better with that style should make the team be more competitive in 2020.
Zack Steffen has been successfully replaced
The Crew entered 2019 with a major task at hand and that was replacing goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was set to leave in the summer. Even though Steffen’s quality is tough to match, it’s fair to say that the Black & Gold were successful in doing this and that this chapter is now closed.
Eloy Room joined the club after the Gold Cup and has been a stud since then, conceding 14 goals in 12 matches and registering 33 saves. He also showed he can be a vocal leader to the backline the same way the U.S. National Team goalkeeper used to be.
One can argue that he’s not as spectacular a goalkeeper as Steffen, and that’s a fair point, but he proved to be a great shot-stopper and, outside of maybe Toronto FC’s goal in the last match of the season, he’s not to blame for any goal conceded by the club after his arrival.
Milton Valenzuela and Federico Higuain (?) will be back
Porter mentioned injuries as an issue for most of the season and the coach was right. Even disregarding minor problems that sidelined guys for a few matches, the Crew could not count on two of its most important players in left back Milton Valenzuela and playmaker Federico Higuain for the major part of the season.
Valenzuela was arguably the team’s best addition in 2018 and he tore his ACL in preseason, sitting out the entire year. Waylon Francis, Hector Jimenez and Connor Maloney were all decent replacements, but it’s undeniable the left back spot will be upgraded when the Argentinean is back.
Pipa’s situation is a little more complicated. The veteran played in 14 matches before he also injured his knee and the team was without its main chance-creator for more than half of the season. The Argentinean will be out of contract soon and may not even return in 2020, but if that’s the case, it’s fair to assume a replacement of at least the same caliber will be signed, so the team will get better one way or the other.
Pedro Santos is a much better player now
Higuain’s injury pushed Pedro Santos to more of a protagonist role and the Portuguese didn’t disappoint, having a breakout season, which saw him score 11 goals and notch six assists — he scored a single goal and assisted on nine in 2017 and 2018 combined.
More than that, Santos didn’t shy away from carrying the load and becoming a centerpiece for the team and came up big in important moments during the season, scoring decisive goals against Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls, among others.
Santos is clearly more confident now and he showed he can play in a central position if needed too. So if he can carry his moment and keep this level for 2020, the Crew should be a stronger team offensively.
The younger players stepped up
A similar process affected the younger players on the roster and some of them stepped up in notable fashion, took advantage of the opportunities and transitioned from promising prospects to useful pieces of the Crew’s roster.
Maloney, who fared well in the last nine matches of the season starting at left back, center-back Aboubacar Keita, who displayed great potential in the 10 games he played, and midfielder Luis Argudo, who scored his first goal and recorded three assists for the team, all fit that category.
They probably won’t become difference-makers for the Crew in 2020, but they’ve definitely turned into interesting rotation pieces and, more often than not, depth is what separates great teams from the good ones.