Putting the ball in the back of the net has been a real struggle for Columbus Crew SC in the young 2019 Major League Soccer season. After the 2-0 setback to the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, the Black & Gold ended their 10th match of the season with just eight goals scored, the worst record in the league for teams with as many games played. By comparison, Los Angeles Football Club has scored 26 already.
Even though head coach Caleb Porter is probably right when he repeatedly says that the team has created enough chances and should have scored more goals over the last few weeks, the truth is that it should take a lot more than time to fix the Crew’s struggling offense. And a big part of the solution has to do with an asset that has been in short supply in Columbus in recent years: money.
Mexican star Carlos Vela has scored 11 goals in 10 matches for LAFC – more than Columbus’ entire roster. LA Galaxy captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic had eight already in just seven matches. These are the premier examples of high-investment Designated Players, a kind of player the Crew fan base hasn’t seen in a Black & Gold uniform lately. Their efficiency and the Crew’s struggles shed some light on a situation that is common in most top leagues in the world and is starting to get to MLS: you can build a solid defense with organization and discipline, but to be prolific offensively, you’ll need top talent.
That reflects almost in perfection the Crew’s current situation. While the team has had a solid defensive shape over the last two years, obviously helped by the individual talents of Zack Steffen, Jonathan Mensah and Milton Valenzuela, its offense hasn’t had the same level of quality to display.
Federico Higuain is obviously a club legend and still a brilliant player, but he’s 34 years old now. Pedro Santos, who wasn’t a star in a mid-sized Portuguese club before he was signed by the Crew, has had a solid 2019 so far, but his playing style clearly doesn’t revolve around his offensive ability.
Justin Meram was a beast offensively in 2017, but since then he’s been just a shadow of his old self. Consistency has also been a factor with Gyasi Zardes, who had a phenomenal 2018 season but has scored in double digits just twice in his seven-year MLS career. Robinho has shown to be an interest cost-benefit addition, but he was playing in Brazil’s third division before coming to Columbus.
Don’t be fooled, these are all good players, who had proved their value to different extents in MLS, but when you compare them to the highly-paid offensive stars around the league, the contrast is obvious.
It was not by accident that Toronto FC dominated the 2017 season under the influence of offensive stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore – and that when the Italian left, the club replaced him with the equally deadly Alejandro Pozuelo. Or that Atlanta United was a powerhouse last season thanks to the attacking power of Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, the latter of which broke the league’s goal scoring record. When the Paraguayan was sold to Newcastle, the Five Stripes went after the South American Player of the Year, Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez.
Of course, there are exceptions. The Dynamo itself is a good example as the team invested on mid-level South and Central American talent to fill up its offensive spots. Sporting Kansas City has relied on a collective approach with affordable players up front.
The Crew has never been a high-spending franchise and that was particularly true under the old ownership group. Still, the club managed to have good results and multiple playoff appearances with a less expensive roster than many of their opponents.
However, times have changed. Even traditionally low-spending teams are starting to join the party. D.C. United has Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta and recently spent some millions of dollars to acquire Argentinean rising star Lucas Rodriguez from Estudiantes. The Philadelphia Union also committed a massive part of their resources to bring Mexican international Marco Fabian to Pennsylvania.
After the Dynamo game, Porter admitted he will start looking for solutions outside of the roster and if the new ownership group is willing to reach into their pockets and make a good impression, they certainly know where to start.