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How the Crew built an MLS Cup Finalist

The road to MLS Cup started years ago.

SOCCER: FEB 25 MLS - Columbus Crew SC Media Day Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Caleb Porter and Tim Bezbatchenko talked about bringing silverware to the Columbus Crew when they were hired in January of 2019. The team is on the cusp of doing so.

However, the roots of the Crew’s MLS Cup finalist team extend back six years. This Black & Gold team was built piece by piece, including members of the club’s last appearance in MLS Cup, giving the team continuity. The new leadership identified and fortified the roster, including breaking the team’s transfer fee record last offseason to speed the transition from scrappy overachievers to build what looks to be a consistent winner.

Let’s take a look at how this MLS Cup finalist team came together.

The Old Guard

Those foundations date back to the previous swoon in the Crew’s on-field fortunes, the fallow period from 2011 through 2013. It was clear that sporting success was drifting further away and it was apparent to then-new owner Anthony Precourt that he had to make a change. He fired longtime Crew mainstay Robert Warzycha and didn’t retain interim head coach Brian Bliss. He then made his single best decision during his tenure in town, Precourt tapped Gregg Berhalter as Sporting Director and Head Coach.

Berhalter had free reign over the roster and there were significant changes. He brought in several new players, including Hector Jimenez in the offseason before the 2014 season. Over seven seasons, Jimenez has played in 140 games across the regular season and playoffs. Waylon Francis, another offseason import, has appeared in 111 games over two tenures with the team. Harrison Afful was a midseason signing in 2015 to shore up right back. He’s now made 154 appearances for the team in his tenure.

The Veteran Additions

After the post-MLS Cup hangover season of 2016, Berhalter looked to refresh the team and brought in two players during the offseason before the 2017 season that formed the foundation of the Crew’s stout defense. Jonathan Mensah came in a January transfer from Russia while Josh Williams arrived in the MLS Re-Entry Draft from Toronto FC for his second stint with the team. After struggling initially with the demands of MLS, Jonathan settled in as a leader and has made 111 appearances for the team. Williams amassed 80 appearances in his second stint with the team, stepping up when called upon.

Berhalter finally was given the ability to make a big transfer splash during the summer of 2017 and brought in Portuguese winger Pedro Santos for a reported fee of around $2 million. The winger truly shined once Porter took over, amassing 19 goals in the last two years, including two during the 2020 Playoffs.

End of an Era

The 2018 season was one of uncertainty and change as Precourt unsuccessfully attempted to move the team. It was also the last season for Berhalter. He left two key imprints on the 2020 team. Dynamic forward Ola Kamara wanted out of town and was traded to the LA Galaxy. The Black & Gold received Gyasi Zardes and allocation money in return. Zardes rebounded to become one of the best goal scorers in MLS since coming to Columbus.

Berhalter also brought in Milton Valenzuela on loan from Newell’s Old Boys, a move that was made permanent at the end of the 2018 season. Valenzuela was an instant starter at left back at 19, playing 30 games his first year and has rebounded from an ACL tear during the 2019 preseason to reclaim the starting spot in 2020.

A summer of rebuilding

The deal to sell the Crew was announced in October 2018, but the new ownership group was not able to take over immediately. That delayed the hiring of Bezbatchenko and Porter until January 2019. The team didn’t make many moves in the transition between Berhalter and Porter due to the short offseason for the front office. Only Homegrown signing Aboubacar Keita survived the season. The team’s performance dipped, with the team going 1-13-1 over a stretch. By midseason, it was clear that Black & Gold needed serious retooling. That work began in earnest as the summer transfer window opened in July 2019.

The team replaced the departing Zack Steffen with an international goalkeeper who had just shined in tournament play. Eloy Room came in as a free agent and quickly established himself as a leading MLS goalkeeper.

Columbus looked to add more speed and dynamism to the attack and brought in winger Luis Diaz from Costa Rica on a transfer. The young Designated Player made an immediate impact, playing 13 games over the second half of the 2019 season. He became the starter on the left wing for much of the 2020 season and appeared in 21 regular season games.

Columbus also added some depth to the squad with free agent signings Youness Mokhtar and Chris Cadden. Mokhtar arrived immediately and has 27 appearances in his season and a half in Black & Gold. Cadden arrived over the winter and made eight appearances as a super-sub on the team.

The Final Pieces

The team was still missing a couple of key pieces to make Porter’s system work. With Federico Higuain leaving via free agency, Columbus looked to upgrade the playmaking capabilities of the team. The front office focused on Tigres attacker Lucas Zelarayan. Ownership approved a team-record $7 million fee to sign Zelarayan. The Argentine playmaker adapted to MLS quickly, winning the Newcomer of the Year award after scoring six goals and tallying four assists in his 16 appearances during the regular season. He’s added four more assists in his three playoff games.

The technical staff also made a deal to bring in Darlington Nagbe via trade from Atlanta United. The Crew sent up to $1 million in allocation money to bring the two-way tempo-setting midfielder back to Ohio. While the stat line of a goal and assist in 15 regular season appearances may look underwhelming, Nagbe is leaned on to control the pace of play, provide a consistent “out” for players in trouble on the ball while playing consistently solid defense. He added three more starts and a goal during the playoffs.

Columbus filled out the rest of the roster, adding talent throughout. Vito Wormgoor only appeared in two games, due to injury, but was expected to hold down the left center back spot next to Jonathan. Winger Derrick Etienne Jr. was a non-roster invitee to preseason camp and quickly made the roster. He then appeared in a team third-best 21 games as a game-changing substitute and spot starter.

The Crew continued to add attackers as Fanendo Adi came over in a low-cost move after a rough year at FC Cincinnati and appeared 11 times. Winger Emmanuel Boateng arrived in a summer trade from D.C. United and has 10 appearances and an assist. Krisztian Nemeth arrived just as the transfer window shut as another goal-scoring option. He scored once in four appearances for the team during the stretch run.

Offseason Homegrown signings midfielders Sebastian Berhalter and Aidan Morris stepped into the lineup during the pandemic induced compressed schedule. Berhalter appeared in eight games while Morris appeared in 10.

Andrew Tarbell arrived via an offseason trade with the San Jose Earthquakes and has ably backed up Room. He’s made seven appearances, including six starts and had two shutouts in the regular season. He started twice more in the playoffs and shut out the opposition both times.

This team has been built through various means and under different leadership. But on Saturday, this group will have a chance to prove all this hard work was a success by winning the MLS Cup.