In Major League Soccer, teams don’t have much time to celebrate a championship before moving on to the next season. That is the case for the Columbus Crew, who won the 2020 MLS Cup on Saturday night with a 3-0 victory against the Seattle Sounders and on Monday morning, announced which players from the 2020 roster will return in 2021 and which have been released.
The Crew will return the core of the roster that helped the team finish third in the Eastern Conference and win the MLS Cup. The club picked up options on the contracts of goalkeeper Eloy Room, defenders Harrison Afful, Grant Lillard, Milton Valenzuela and Josh Williams, midfielders Derrick Etienne Jr. and Pedro Santos and forward Miguel Berry.
Room, Afful, Valenzuela and Williams were key parts to a defensive unit that was among the best in MLS in 2020 and finished the postseason with three consecutive shutouts. Lilliard did not appear in a game for the Black & Gold after being traded to the team from Inter Miami in August but has potential to continue to develop and is likely on a relatively cheap deal. Etienne emerged as a solid winger addition after he was signed as a free agent last offseason, scoring the second goal in the MLS Cup Final. Santos missed the Final, as he was medically not cleared to play, but continues to be an important part of the team following a six-goal, eight-assist season. Berry did not feature for Columbus after he was the seventh-overall selection in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.
In addition to these players, the Crew also brings back goalkeepers Jon Kempin and Matt Lampson, defenders Chris Cadden, Aboubacar Keita, Jonathan Mensah and Vito Wormgoor, midfielders Artur, Sebastian Berhalter, Luis Diaz, Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan and forward Gyasi Zardes. These players are already under contract for the 2021 season.
Of this group, only Kempin and Lampson did not feature for the Black & Gold in 2020. Jonathan, Artur, Nagbe, Zelarayan and Zardes are players whose names appear first on the team sheet and will be invaluable in Columbus’ efforts to repeat as champions. Cadden, Keita, Berhalter, Diaz and Morris are all young players who are only going to improve after making early contributions to the club, with Diaz and Morris each starting and performing well in the MLS Cup Final. Wormgoor was expected to be the starting center back next to Jonathan but suffered a season-ending injury just three games into the year. He is expected back, healthy and in that role in 2021.
“Despite all the challenges we encountered during the 2020 season, our team was able to bring Columbus its second MLS Cup,” Crew President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko said in the press release. “As we turn our attention towards the 2021 season, we are glad to welcome back the core of our squad. While we have achieved one of our goals by winning MLS Cup, we want to continue to build off the success of this season and will look to continue to strengthen our roster in pursuit of that. Next year will also see us open the New Crew Stadium as well as the OhioHealth Performance Center - two state-of-the-art facilities - so we are thrilled for what’s ahead in 2021.”
With the news of players that will return to the Crew in 2021 also comes the announcement of those that will not be a part of the roster next season. The Black & Gold declined contract options goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, midfielders Fatai Alashe and Youness Mokhtar and forwards Jordan Hamilton and Krisztian Nemeth.
Tarbell played in nine games, eight starts, including two in the MLS Cup playoffs, as a backup to Room in his one season in Columbus. The Black & Gold announced the addition of veteran goalkeeper Evan Bush prior to the roster decisions, and it appears this was because of this decision.
Alashe was a mid-season acquisition who played in eight contests this year but saw time decrease as the season progressed. Similarly, Mokhtar’s minutes fell off as the season reached its conclusion, as the winger did not feature at all for the Crew in the postseason.
Hamilton and Nemeth were little used depth pieces behind Zardes. Hamilton played just twice for the Black & Gold in 2020, while Nemeth, who was signed in October, played just four games, scoring one goal.
Finally, defender Waylon Francis, midfielders Hector Jimenez and Emmanuel Boateng and forward Fanendo Adi are all out of contract with the club. The Crew announced the team will remain in dialogue with all three of those players.
Francis only appeared in four games for Columbus, all of those coming in late-October or later. Jimenez has long been a key depth piece for the Black & Gold, able to play in a number of different positions but only saw the field eight times in 2020. Boateng also came over in the middle of the season and featured in 10 games. Adi was brought in during the offseason as a low-risk signing but only saw action in 11 games with no goals scored.
MLS is now in a blackout period where clubs cannot sign or trade players until the conclusion of the Expansion Draft, set to take place on Tuesday, Dec. 15. MLS will release the list of players available for selection in the Expansion Draft at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.
The end-of-year waivers are scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 1 p.m. ET and MLS free agency begins at the same time. The MLS Re-Entry Process begins with Stage 1 on Thursday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. ET and Stage 2 of the Re-Entry Process will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 1 p.m. ET. A full MLS list of players eligible for ree agency, end-of-year waivers and the Re-Entry Process will be announced by MLS in the near future.
The Crew’s current 2021 roster:
Goalkeepers (4): Evan Bush, Jon Kempin, Matt Lampson, Eloy Room
Defenders (8): Harrison Afful, Chris Cadden, Aboubacar Keita, Grant Lillard, Jonathan Mensah, Milton Valenzuela, Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor
Midfielders (8): Artur, Sebastian Berhalter, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne, Jr., Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayan
Forwards (2): Miguel Berry, Gyasi Zardes