It’s a quick turnaround for the 2020 MLS Cup winners Columbus Crew. According to Major League Soccer rules, teams have up to 24 hours after the end of their campaigns to announce their end-of-season roster decisions, which means the Black & Gold should communicate which contract options they will exercise heading into the 2021 season at some point on Sunday.
These decisions are all part of the league’s offseason calendar for player moves, which officially starts on Sunday, with a half-day trade window and will be followed by the Expansion Draft, which the Crew will be exempt, the end-of-year waivers, free agency and the re-entry process.
It’s likely, Crew’s president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, technical director and vice-president of soccer operations Pat Onstad and head coach Caleb Porter have made most of those decisions over the last few weeks, but it’s possible that the MLS Cup Final might have impacted some last-minute decisions.
Keeping a championship-winning roster is never an easy task, but the Crew seems to be in a good position to do so after lifting the trophy on Saturday and odds are they will only make some minor adjustments in order to increase the roster’s depth in certain areas of the field.
It’s never an easy task to anticipate every move a club will make during the offseason, especially with the massive financial effects of the global pandemic and all the uncertainty regarding the presence of fans in the stands in 2021, but considering the team’s profile in recent seasons and its recent success, here are Massive Report’s best guesses on how the Black & Gold will approach each area of the squad.
The Crew had a group of four goalkeepers in 2020, all of which are at least 27 years old and all with five years of professional experience and stints as starters in MLS. Due to the nature of the position and the limited playing time available for those who fall behind in the coach’s pecking order, that’s not usual and could change in the 2021 season.
Eloy Room is the undisputed starter and Andrew Tarbell has solidified his status as his immediate backup with good performances during the MLS Cup playoffs, so it’s very likely the Black & Gold intends to keep them both on the roster. A trade could be on the table for Tarbell if he feels he could be a starter somewhere else and wants to pursue that opportunity, though.
Jon Kempin and Matt Lampson didn’t see the field in 2020, with the former spending the entire season on loan with USL Championship side San Diego Loyal SC. At least one of them could be on their way out with the club looking to fill the fourth goalkeeper spot with a young, cheaper option.
Columbus had one of the strongest group of fullbacks in the entire league in 2020 with three capable options for each side of the field considering Hector Jimenez’s ability to play on both the right and the left. The veteran, however, is rumored to be on the move to expansion franchise Austin FC.
On the right, Harrison Afful showed he still has some gas left in the tank with a great MLS Cup Final performance, but at 34, it could be the time the Crew started looking for a long-term replacement for him. Chris Cadden could be that guy, but he played only 357 minutes in 2020, some of them in midfield, and it’s still too early to make a fair assessment on the player. A second, and more normal, season in Columbus, should give us a better idea of where he stands.
On the left, Milton Valenzuela returned from his knee injury in 2020 and, even if his performances weren’t as good as in 2018 for most of the year, he’s undoubtedly a starting-caliber player with a lot of upside at just 22. The future of Waylon Francis in Columbus is also uncertain as he played in fewer than 200 minutes in 2020, the lowest mark in his entire career.
Francis, a Costa Rican international, recently turned 30 and could be interested in looking for more opportunities elsewhere to not fall completely out of the picture for his national team as the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaches. If that’s the case and Jimenez is indeed moved, the Crew could have as many as two new players to fill in this area of the field.
Much of the Crew’s defensive success in 2020, which has highlighted with three consecutive clean sheets in the final matches of the season, needs to be credited to the strong play of the team’s center back core of Jonathan Mensah, the team captain and a member of MLS’s Best XI, Josh Williams and Aboubacar Keita, who dominated most of the minutes on central defense during the year.
The Black & Gold are expected to keep all three in 2021 and with the return on 2020 signing Vito Wormgoor, who spent nearly the entirety of the season sidelined due to injury, the group seems in a great position heading into the next year.
Grant Lillard was acquired halfway through the season and didn’t play a single minute, making it impossible to judge his capacity and the team’s interest in keeping him as the fifth option. If he walks, the Crew should have no problem in replacing him with a younger player, maybe even someone coming from the team’s academy.
Columbus started the season with high hopes with its starting midfield duo of Artur and Darlington Nagbe and some questions regarding the depth behind them. Luckily, in both cases, the Black & Gold had positive answers during the year.
Not only did the starters live up to the expectations, forming the team’s engine room along with Lucas Zelaryan as Porter described, but also their primary backups, 19-year-olds Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhalter, showed they were more ready than their young ages and limited experience would suggest. Morris, in particular, became the youngest player to ever start an MLS Cup Final and had a tremendous performance in the match that gave Columbus the title.
The Homegrown player’s positive impact might push MLS veteran Fatai Alashe out of the door. The 27-year-old midfielder was signed in August but didn’t play in most of the final matches this season, which could indicate he’s no longer in Porter’s plans and could be willing to move away to get more minutes somewhere else around the league.
The signing of Lucas Zelarayan was a home-run for the Crew in 2020. The Designated Player was instrumental to the team’s success during the season and couldn’t have been a better replacement for club legend and fellow Argentinean Federico Higuain. His MLS Cup Final performance was not only instrumental to the Crew’s triumph but also went down as one of the best in league history.
When he wasn’t on the field, though, the Crew struggled. Winger Pedro Santos and midfielder Darlington Nagbe were both pushed to his spot during his absence but didn’t manage to produce the same kind of performances he did.
Signing a reliable backup for Zelarayan should be a priority for the Crew in the offseason, but finding a player with the talent to do it and who’s willing to sit on the bench for most of the year is probably the most difficult task when assembling a roster, so expect Columbus to pull the trigger here only if they’re absolutely convinced they found the right player.
Porter should also be satisfied with his group of wingers. In Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne Jr., Youness Mokhtar and Emmanuel Boateng, he has talented and versatile options, which can provide him alternatives to play in a variety of different ways.
Santos, Diaz and Etienne, who scored a very important goal in the MLS Cup Final, are clearly his top options, so it’s likely all three remain with the club. If the Crew has the means and the intention to improve even further in that area, it’s likely that would mean one of Mokhtar or Boateng would have to leave depart. The Dutch winger has the advantage of being the only one besides Santos who’s able to play as a pocket winger but is also on a considerably higher salary, so there’s not a clear option if that’s the case.
Gyasi Zardes had his third-straight double-digit goal-scoring season in Columbus and is as good as any other striker in the league. He’ll be leading the Crew’s offensive efforts again in 2021 unless something really unexpected happens.
The situation behind him is not as clear, though. Krisztian Nemeth joined the team in October and responded well in his limited playing time. It’s also expected that 2020 SuperDraft pick Miguel Berry continues developing, either in Columbus or on loan somewhere else, as it was the case in 2020.
It’s hard to envision a future in which Fanendo Adi and Jordan Hamilton are part of Porter’s plans going forward. The former Portland Timbers striker scored just once and last appeared in a match back in October. Additionally, it’s unlikely the Crew is able to re-sign him in as friendly of a deal as they did in 2020 when he was still being paid by FC Cincinnati after being waived. Hamilton has played less than 70 minutes in two seasons in Columbus and never showed much, so he could also be on his way out.
The Crew won't have much time to enjoy the MLS Cup win before having to make decisions. News will come fast in the short offseason.