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Crew 2019 season preview

The Black & Gold are back for another year. Now let’s take a look at how that might play out.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2018 Major League Soccer season kicked off, Columbus Crew players, staff and fans were in a place of uncertainty due to the possibility of the team moving to Austin, Texas. What a difference a year makes, as the Crew is staying in Columbus under new ownership and have a bright future ahead in the club’s home city. The Save The Crew movement was a success and now it’s time to focus on the future and that means the 2019 season.

While much of the Black & Gold remains the same, there are plenty of differences from when we last saw the team finish last year with yet another Eastern Conference semifinal appearance. How will a new coaching staff handle the team? Will there be more offensive production? How will the defense hold up? Let’s take a look at the 2019 Black & Gold.

How did the Crew finish in 2018?

Last season was a successful one for Columbus, all things considered. With everything going on off the field, many expected the Black & Gold to struggle but that was not the case. Gregg Berhalter kept his team focused on what they could control, and that was on the field and the results followed. The team finished with a 14-11-9 record and in fifth place in the East, qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

Although the Crew didn’t have the typical upswing in form at the end of the regular season — two wins in the final seven games of the year — Columbus went to D.C. United and knocked off the team’s old rivals 5-4 in penalty kicks after a thrilling 2-2 draw in the Knockout Round. In the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Black & Gold faced another old foe in the New York Red Bulls. Despite a 1-0 win at MAPFRE Stadium in the first leg, the Crew was beaten 3-0 at Red Bull Arena to end the 2019 run.

What’s new in 2019?

First and foremost is the ownership group. After it became clear that Anthony Precourt was not going to remain in Columbus, former team doctor Pete Edwards stepped up, looking to get involved in purchasing the team. He found what he considerers to be perfect partners in Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and together they made the Save The Crew dream a reality. The ownership group has already announced plans for a new downtown stadium and a new practice facility and community park where MAPFRE Stadium currently stands.

The coaching staff is also new. Former Akron University and Portland Timbers boss Caleb Porter takes over for Berhalter, who was named the U.S. Men’s National Team head coach in December. With him, Porter brings a number of new staff members, including longtime MLS veteran Matt Reis, Pablo Moreira, who worked with him at Akron and Portland, and tenured assistant Mike Matkovich.

There are also new members of the front office running things for the Crew. Former Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko returned to his hometown to be the Black & Gold’s new president. The team’s goalkeeper coach the last five seasons, Pat Onstad, who was the interim sporting director following Berhalter’s departure, is now working under Bezbatchenko as the club’s new technical director.

Who’s out?

On the player side of things, the departures have been minimal and not ones the team should feel in any significant way. Forward Adam Jahn, who played just 68 minutes last season and scored no goals, was let go and is now with Phoenix Rising FC in the USL Championship. Wingers Mike Grella and Cristian Martinez were not brought back. Grella recently announced his retirement from soccer due to injuries and Martinez landed with the Chicago Fire. Central midfielder Muhammad Abu is now with Vålerenga of Norway.

Who’s in?

Given the change in ownership and bringing in a whole new staff, there was not a lot of time to make changes this offseason. Porter also has stated that he likes the current roster makeup and believes it fits how he wants to play this year.

But the Crew did make a couple of changes. The Black & Gold brought in speedy Brazilian Robinho from Ceara Sporting Club to help add something different on the wings. Columbus signed former Orlando City goalkeeper Joe Bendik to add depth to a position group that is going to lose starter Zack Steffen to Manchester City in July. The Crew signed Homegrown product Aboubacar Keita and also made a trade for former left back Waylon Francis after last year’s starter, Milton Valenzuela, was lost for the season.

What’s the new jersey?

It’s hard to mess up the Crew’s jersey, unless you’re Anthony Precourt, as you just stick with the simple, unique gold color with slight updates every so often. That’s what the Black & Gold did in 2019.

Twitter / @ColumbusCrewSC

New white and black coloring around the collar is the main difference. Now if only it had a second star over the logo...

New coach? Who is he?

As mentioned above, Porter is taking over the Black & Gold. After a year away from the game, Porter is excited and re-energized to help lead Columbus into the club’s new era.

Porter’s name is a familiar one to MLS fans. He was in charge of the Timbers from 2013-2017 before abruptly announcing he was leaving the club. During his time in Portland, the Timbers were one of the most successful teams in MLS, playing an exciting brand of soccer and winning the 2015 MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium against the Crew.

Prior to coming to MLS, Porter spent seven seasons at Akron, helping to build the men’s soccer program into a powerhouse. In 2010, Porter’s Zips took home the NCAA College Cup as national champions.

New stadium?

Not yet, but it’s coming. The new ownership group is doing it right this time, putting a stadium in the heart of Columbus’ downtown, within a stone’s throw of where the Columbus Blue Jackets and minor league baseball team Columbus Clippers play their home games. There will be plenty more to do around this new stadium as well, which is expected to open in 2021.

The ownership group has already been around the country to see some of the best stadiums in MLS, including Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City and the brand new Allianz Field in Minnesota, as well as hosting forums with fans to see what the supporters want in a new home.

Projected starting XI

The Crew will likely play a 4-2-3-1 similar to how they did under Berhalter. The lineup should look like this:

Zack Steffen
Harrison Afful - Gaston Sauro - Jonathan Mensah - Waylon Francis
Artur - Wil Trapp
Pedro Santos - Federico Higuain-Justin Meram
Gyasi Zardes

Expectations for 2019?

The expectations remain high for a team that kept most of its roster intact and has continuously made playoff runs over the last five seasons. The postseason has become the expectation and Porter plans on delivering that once again. It will be interesting to see how the Crew start this year with very little differences from last year in terms of the roster. If changes need to be made this summer, they undoubtedly will.

While the team looks similar on paper and will lineup almost the same as they have in the past few years, this team is going to play a bit differently. Porter hopes that using a counter-press when the ball is turned over will be a way to help create more offense, making the Black & Gold less predictable and leading to more wins.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

Federico Higuain should always be watched closely when viewing the Crew. The midfield maestro has been the man who creates offense for the Black & Gold for years and will have to do so again in 2019. Given that he’s not getting any younger, there are concerns among the fans about a decline in Higuain’s performances, but he’s not worried about that and neither is Porter. If preseason showed us anything, it’s that Higuain is looking as talented as ever and ready to go this season.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

The Crew being figured out. Toward the end of last year, this feeling began to creep in. The wingers weren’t scoring as they had in previous seasons and opposing teams knew how to defend Columbus. Thankfully the defense was much improved, so the Black & Gold were still able to get the results to make the playoffs.

This year brings a bit of a new philosophy under Porter with the counter-press and some different possession ideas. But this is still, more or less, the same Crew roster. If teams can figure out how to beat the press when turning the ball over, they are familiar enough with the group to also know how to attack Columbus. If that happens, things may not go as well as supporters hope in 2019.

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

JJ Williams. The rookie forward brings a lot of energy and talent to the Crew after being selected in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft out of Kentucky. Although he has both Gyasi Zardes and Patrick Mullins in front of him, Williams showed in the preseason he has skills that could be useful for the Black & Gold this year. He is a player who is going to give it his all and fight for his team, and that will be well received by the Columbus faithful.

And there is Massive Report’s 2019 Columbus Crew preview. Let us know what you think about any of the topics or just your general thoughts on this year’s team in the comment section below. Your words are always appreciated.