A year ago, while attempting to preview Columbus Crew SC’s 2018 season, we couldn’t help but question if it would be the last time we would do so with the Black & Gold potentially moving to Austin, Texas. A year later, the Crew remains in Columbus under new ownership and the excitement around the city for this team is palpable.
The Black & Gold hopes to build on a season where the team finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the conference semifinals before losing 3-1 on aggregate to the New York Red Bulls. It wasn’t quite the ending Columbus planned, but it was still a successful season.
Now the team has a new coaching staff as Caleb Porter took over for Gregg Berhalter, who was named the U.S. Men’s National Team head coach in December. There will be some changes under Porter, but he will more or less use the base that has been built by this team over the years.
What does our staff think about the 2019 season? Let’s take a look.
Who is the Crew’s key returning player from 2018?
Elmer Plasencia: Federico Higuain - Pipa’s creative ability is really crucial to our attack. Whether he is able to facilitate and create chances for other players is a big key to our success. Caleb Porter seems to rate him very highly as well and given the success Diego Valeri had with Porter, I can see Pipa having his best year yet.
Mike Crosky: Even with likely reduced minutes due to the compact schedule and the realism of his position and age, ultimately the team rides or dies by what Federico Higuain does. His ability to create and capitalize on set pieces is one area of play where age takes longer to show. His production during the run of play will be the ultimate fate of the team offensively.
Patrick Murphy: Wil Trapp. This may not be one of the obvious answers but I think Trapp is very important and rather underrated as a part of the Crew’s midfield and how this team plays. Had you asked me following last season, I would have told you that Trapp would not be on the roster in 2019 based on things I was hearing. The fact that he is still with the Black & Gold is a huge boost for Columbus, even if he departs in the summer.
Collin Johnson: Pedro Santos - The diminutive and crafty winger was unable to build on the promise of his short 2017 season during last year’s campaign, finishing with only one goal and seven assists. Santos’ assists were a key part of the Berhalter system but his lack of goals scored contributed to Crew SC’s disappointing offensive output in 2018. If Columbus expects a deep playoff run, goals must come from the wings and from Santos.
Ethan Alonso: Pedro Santos. He will be one of the key players for Columbus this season because of Caleb Porter as manager. Porter has already said that he wants to push the wingers to score more and be more involved in the attack. I believe Santos will be key and will be on fire this season, scoring buckets of goals and assisting Zardes up top.
Nick Hudak: This could be a couple of options but the somewhat obvious choice is Federico Higuain. He creates a bulk of the chances and assuming Caleb Porter plans to keep him in a similar role, Crew fans should expect to see Pipa being the same dictator of tempo that he’s been.
Guilherme Torres: The team kept pretty much all of its most important players, so it’s hard to pick one, but I have to go with Gyasi Zardes here. The striker was a welcome addition and was among the best in his position in the league last year. If he had left, the Crew would have a hard time in finding a replacement and integrating him to the team.
Jay Homan: Federico Higuain - He is the maestro of the offense. Need I say more?
Tyler Fisher: Gyasi Zardes. The expectations are high for him and with a system that knows when to play him the ball is very crucial to his success.
Patrick Guldan: This is a tough question. The key on offense is Federico Higuain, but the weathervane for the season is on the wings. For the Crew to compete for the Cup, they need more out wide. That means Pedro Santos has to show he can be a difference maker. If he can carry over his preseason form and produce an end product, Columbus is a far more dangerous team. If not, the Crew will struggle to the back half of the playoff pack.
Abigail Hintz: I’d say the key returning player is that we have returning players at all. That momentum and energy is going to be huge for the team this season, as long as they don’t crack under the pressure.
Other than that, I’d say Gyasi Zardes. His production was huge last year, and if the team can finally get some more effective services then I think he has the potential to be unstoppable.
Which of the team’s offseason additions will have the biggest impact in 2019?
Elmer Plasencia: Waylon Francis - His ability to be able to fill Milton Valenzuela’s shoes will be huge for the team. From what we’ve seen in the preseason, the fullbacks are going to continue to press high and Francis’ ability to get up and down the pitch will be huge to the team’s ability to build from the left wing. Let’s hope he can rediscover his 2015 form.
Mike Crosky: Caleb Porter. Normally, such a question will illicit a player’s name, but he is without question the biggest addition of the offseason. The roster more or less stayed intact, though the additions of goalkeeper Joe Bendik, winger Robinho, and the re-acquisition of outside back Waylon Francis all will likely have starting roles throughout the season. But how Porter enhances the current foundation built by Gregg Berhalter is the key to the team having an extraordinary season. How does he squeeze every bit out of Federico Higuain? How does Porter create a system that produces goal productivity from his wingers? The team lacked significant goal creation or finishing from the wing last season, a priority spoken of by Porter numerous times during the offseason. How does he handle the defensive transition from Zack Steffen’s mid-season departure? The collective answer to those questions will be the story of the 2019 season.
Patrick Murphy: I’m going to go with Robinho. While he’s not a starter now, the pressure is on Justin Meram and Pedro Santos to produce and quickly. If they don’t, Robinho is going to get his shot. I liked what I saw from the winger in the preseason. I still think he needs time to adjust to this league but I think he will be a contributor, maybe even in a super-sub role, by the year’s end.
Collin Johnson: JJ Williams -The Black & Gold finished 2018 with only one goal scored by a striker not named Gyasi Zardes. In Williams, the Crew has a physical presence who can hopefully knock in a few goals during late-game situations that require a more direct approach. At 6-foot-4, Williams adds a physical presence that can hopefully provide a like-for-like swap for Zardes and also add a set-piece threat in times of desperation.
Ethan Alonso: Waylon Francis. He will have the biggest impact to fill the hole left my Milton Valenzuela, who is out for the season with a knee issue. Francis has to provide steady numbers in the attacking end and has to be solid in the back, as Valenzuela was one of the best left backs in the league last season. The Crew defense will sink or swim depending on how Francis performs this season.
Nick Hudak: No brainer: Waylon Francis. Experience with the teammates around him and the side (theoretically), also filling in a key role at left back will see him being the one offseason addition that will have the most opportunities to make a major impact.
Guilherme Torres: The Crew weren’t extremely active this offseason, so not many new faces, let alone big ones. Regarding impact, I think Waylon Francis is the easiest answer since he’s the only of the newcomers to presumably have a starting job with the team. I believe Joe Bendik can become really important in June if the Crew cannot replace Zack Steffen with a name from outside the roster. Robinho has talent, but, to me, he’s still at least one year away from being a really impactful player.
Jay Homan: Robinho - Justin Meram and Pedro Santos both had a tendency to go a little flat last season, so I am expecting Robinho to get plenty of opportunities this season and make the most of them.
Tyler Fisher: Waylon Francis. Waylon is familiar with the team and familiar with how they play. Yes, it is a different coach, but he picked up where he left off and is destined to be a top-five left back in the league this year.
Patrick Guldan: Almost by default, this is Waylon Francis. The team didn’t change much in the offseason, with Francis, Joe Bendik, and Robinho being the major additions. Francis will be the starter at left back in place of the injured Milton Valenzuela. Just how well Francis is able to impersonate the excellent Argentine will indicate how tough the defense will be.
Abigail Hintz: Waylon Francis. Though the circumstances that led to his acquisition are pretty devastating for the team, he’s already proven his value in the preseason tournament. The Black and Gold will be happy to have him back in Columbus this season.
Who is your offensive MVP?
Elmer Plasencia: Gyasi Zardes - He’s the main man up top. The Crew added another weapon with Robinho and Pedro Santos seems to be gaining confidence. Even if Zardes doesn’t repeat his goal count from last year, I can’t imagine a big drop-off in production from him. The strikers have had success in the preseason and I expect that to continue headed into MLS play.
Mike Crosky: Gyasi Zardes. Will he score 19 goals again this season? I doubt it, but in Caleb Porter’s ideal world we will see a handful of assists in addition to 15-plus goals this season. Even just one assist would be a jump up from his goose egg in that category last season. As previously mentioned, Porter will be pushing for production from the wings. Combination play between the wingers and Zardes is paramount in this coming to fruition. Zardes will have to dish the ball off to his wingers, if nothing more than to create space for his own play. In turn, assists will follow.
Patrick Murphy: For me, it’s Gyasi Zardes. I expect a similar year to last season for the forward. Maybe he doesn’t score as many goals, especially if other players start scoring, but I do expect him to get more assists — he had none last year — and continue to be dangerous in front of goal in 2019.
Collin Johnson: Federico Higuain - Columbus’ midfield maestro will be the heart and soul of the team’s offense until he leaves or is too old to operate effectively, which may be never. From the few minutes of preseason action the public was privy to, Higuain’s role will change slightly though he will still be responsible for creating and distributing on both ends of the field. I expect him to be near double digits in both goals and assists.
Ethan Alonso: Federico Higuain. Pipa will by my offensive MVP because he was a quality player and always has that special something to control the attack and to score a few key goals or provide assists.
Nick Hudak: Gyasi Zardes. Assuming a lack of scoring production from the wings, the majority of the offense will be shouldered by Zardes for yet another season.
Guilherme Torres: With the wingers entering the season with a lot to prove, it’s between Gyasi Zardes and Federico Higuain for this one, but I think the striker will have the honors here. I see Pipa remaining productive, but also getting some rest this season, while Zardes is expected to play a lot and he will be crucial for the Crew if he can replicate or at least come close to last year’s production.
Jay Homan: Gyasi Zardes - I am going to go out on a limb and say that Zardes will be part of more scoring plays this season than last. Caleb Porter is going to want to score with this team and the key to that is getting the most out of Zardes.
Tyler Fisher: Federico Higuain. The maestro is great with the ball and has an eye nobody else has. For him to get offensive MVP will be a great swan song before he departs Columbus.
Patrick Guldan: Federico Higuain. The Crew offense still needs the 34-year-old playmaker to set things up. Even when he’s not creating the final passes, getting assists or scoring the goals, he’s the guy that can pull a defense out of shape with a switch or find the open man to spring a two-on-one. Without Higuain, the Crew offense looks slow and stagnant. There are fewer open looks and fewer tap ins for the strikers. The Crew season balances on how fit the maestro can remain as he reaches his mid-30s.
Abigail Hintz: Zardes. Again, he’s on fire and I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.
Who is your defensive MVP?
Elmer Plasencia: Jonathan Mensah - He really came into his own last season with the club. He’s got pace, power and awareness. If he continues to grow upon his preseason form, there’s no reason why he can’t challenge for an All-Star spot in my opinion.
Mike Crosky: Jonathan Mensah. No matter who is in goal after Steffen departs this summer, they will most certainly rely on Mensah leading the backline accordingly. The hulking center back will be pivotal to keeping the pressure away from his goalkeeper. He is well experienced in MLS and beyond and it will show.
Patrick Murphy: Jonathan Mensah for sure. While those around MLS didn’t take notice last year, Jonathan had a huge jump in performance and helped to turn the Black & Gold into a solid defensive team. Jonathan’s ability on the ball was much more secure in 2018, though he still had occasional lapses. I expect another big year for the center back and he could be in contention for the league’s defensive player of the year award.
Collin Johnson: Jonathan Mensah - If Zack Steffen were playing the whole season, he’d easily slot into this position. Jonathan rebounded from an up and down (mostly up despite the continued refrain from national media personalities) 2017 to lead a surprisingly stout backline during the 2018 season. The center back is prone to an occasional lapse in judgment but was able to dramatically limit those errors last year. If Mensah is able to have the same type of season, then he’s easily the Black & Gold’s best defensive player not named Steffen.
Ethan Alonso: Artur. He will be a key player who will win possession back and start the counter or move the ball on to Trapp or Pipa, who have better disbursing ability to lead the line to score.
Nick Hudak: Jonathan Mensah. Coming off a great season, Mensah be a wall in front of Zack Steffen and when he leaves for Manchester City, the center back will only be relied upon even more heavily. His physicality makes him a handful for opposing attackers to deal with.
Guilherme Torres: I’d go with Milton Valenzuela, but he’s out for the season, so Jonathan Mensah is my pick. He anchored a very good Crew backline in 2018 and if he keeps progressing at the same pace this season, he’s easily a candidate for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Zack Steffen will be very important too, obviously, but he will only be around for part of the season.
Jay Homan: Waylon Francis - With Milton Valenzuela out the entire season, Francis is stepping into a very big hole with very little depth. I expect him to not only live up to the challenge, but also prove himself a competitor for the starting left back role in 2020.
Tyler Fisher: Waylon Francis. The pace that he has to get back quickly and break up the attack of the opposition is critical in the mindset that “defense wins games.”
Patrick Guldan: In 2017, Jonathan Mensah could have been seen as a bust. Making $800,000, he didn’t perform like one of the best-paid defenders in the league. In 2018, he figured it out. He was solid and dependable. He cut out the costly errors and cemented the best defensive team in the Gregg Berhalter era. There’s no reason to expect that he won’t do it again. With Harrison Afful another year older, Valenzuela injured, and a center back partner that has lost much of his pace in Gaston Sauro, Jonathan is the key to the backline.
Abigail Hintz: Zack Steffen. I cringe a little thinking about his impending departure from the club, but I think even playing for Columbus for half of a season is enough to leave a lasting impact on the 2019 season.
Where in the Eastern Conference standings do you see Crew SC finishing 2019?
Elmer Plasencia: That’s a tough question. It’s hard to say how a manager will gel with the squad. With that being said, Columbus did have a strong preseason, Porter is a proven winner and this is an experienced roster. I see the club finishing anywhere between third and fifth in the East. If the wingers are able to produce goals, this team could be a dark horse to shake things up come MLS Cup playoffs.
Patrick Murphy: I think it will be an interesting year for the Crew. This group has proven it can make the playoffs but without much change, opponents began to start figuring them out. Caleb Porter’s tweaks will certainly help in that area, but how long until teams begin to adjust to that? I believe there are big things coming in terms of additions under new ownership but I think it’s a year away. I think this team probably finishes fifth in the East and makes the postseason but looks rather different heading into 2020.
Collin Johnson: Third - If the team can stay healthy and Caleb Porter’s new wrinkles are effective, the Crew should once again be a top-tier team in the Eastern Conference.
Ethan Alonso: Fifth. I can see Columbus finishing in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and going into the playoffs and falling out maybe in the second round to one of the better teams in the conference who have put money and resources to proven European talent. The four teams above Columbus in the conference would be in order Atlanta United, D.C. United, the New York Red Bulls and the Montreal Impact.
Nick Hudak: There’s a lot of possible places that the Crew could end up, but a safe bet sounds like fifth place just as last year. There are still unanswered questions that remain in this Columbus side. None of the teams in the Eastern Conference made significant changes outside of Miguel Almiron leaving Atlanta United for Newcastle, but you have to imagine that they will remain the favorite. D.C. United and both New York teams will follow but perhaps in a slightly different order.
Guilherme Torres: The East got tougher with D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union improving and not many teams clearly regressing - except New York City FC, maybe. Since there will be one more playoff spot up for grabs, I’m very confident the Crew will have no trouble on making it into the postseason again. I see Atlanta United and the New York Red Bull one step ahead of the rest, so I’d put the Crew somewhere between third and fifth.
Jay Homan: I believe the Crew will finish in the middle of the table, likely in fifth place again. The Crew have consistently been on the playoff fringe the last couple of seasons and Caleb Porter and staff have made it clear that they want to grow off the standard Gregg Berhalter left behind. With that said, there will be some growing pains at the beginning of the season which will prevent Columbus from being one of the top teams in the East.
Tyler Fisher: I see Columbus finishing third in the Eastern Conference. Which is surprisingly good under their new head coach Caleb Porter.
Patrick Guldan: As is, this is a team that finishes in the middle of the Eastern Conference. There are still high performers, but too many players are now in their 30s with a decline looming. Eventually, time will catch up to Federico Higuain and Harrison Afful. Expecting a resurgent season from Pedro Santos and Justin Meram may be too much with the evidence pointing to declining numbers. Zack Steffen is leaving in midseason and Wil Trapp could follow. There isn’t much depth through midfield or at the outside backs. This team has to hope this year, not last, is the last hurrah for this version of the Crew. I also think that Caleb Porter and Tim Bezbatchenko know this and summer reinforcements are in the cards. Fifth place with better to come in 2020.
Abigail Hintz: Top three. We’ve seen what they can do while the future is uncertain, and I think with a certain and exciting future ahead this team could go all the way. Porter’s vision of another trophy is definitely possible for this group.
Do you agree with our guys’ thoughts on this season? Give us your thoughts on any of the above topics of the Crew’s 2019 season in the comment section below.