Four days after winning its second MLS Cup trophy, the Columbus Crew is already in offseason mode. Over the next several weeks, the Black & Gold will work hard to build the strongest roster possible to not only be able to defend its title in 2021 but also to make an impactful return to the CONCACAF Champions League after an absence of an entire decade.
The Crew has already announced its first squad moves with as many as nine players, including veterans like fullbacks Waylon Francis and Hector Jimenez, and decent contributors of its championship-winning campaign, such as winger Youness Mokhtar and goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, either not having their contracts options picked up by the club or seeing their deals expire.
On the other hand, the Black & Gold have also announced their first addition for the 2021 season, 32-year-old goalkeeper Evan Bush, an Ohio native, who was acquired from the Vancouver Whitecaps in exchange for $125,000 in General Allocation Money.
As the team’s roster stands now, the Crew has 23 players currently under contract for 2021 and will certainly be looking to make additions in the near future. The left back, wings, and striker spots are clearly the areas which head coach Caleb Porter and the club’s front office will need to strengthen heading into 2021, mostly with depth pieces than starting-caliber players.
With sports organizations around the world still fighting the financial effects of the global pandemic, Major League Soccer’s end-of-year transfer mechanisms could prove a viable route for the Crew to make some of these signings And as with all of the methods — free agency, the end-of-year waiver draft and the re-entry process — Columbus only needs t be abe to afford the players’ salaries, with no transfer fees or trade assets involved.
Typically, stars are not available in any of these processes, but teams can pick up some valuable contributors if they do their homework. Two players who were in the Crew’s starting lineup on Saturday’s MLS Cup Final, defender Josh Williams and winger Derrick Etienne Jr., were obtained by the club this way.
With the first two methods starting on Wednesday with the re-entry process following on Thursday, here are five names Columbus could explore:
Justin Morrow (Free Agent)
With left back been a position of need, the 33-year-old Morrow is arguably the best option available. An MLS Cup winner with Toronto FC in 2017, Morrow fell down the team’s pecking order last season and saw his contract expire at the end of 2020.
He’s clearly not the same player he was in 2017, when he scored eight goals and was called up for the U.S. National Team, but is still an above-average player in his position. In Columbus, he wouldn’t have to play as much, serving as a backup to Milton Valenzuela, and in fact, his contrasting style to the Argentinean’s could provide Porter with an interesting mix at the position.
According to the salaries released by the MLS Players Association in 2019 (no salaries for the 2020 season were made public), Morrow earned $330,000 in Toronto last year, but after the end of his deal and with him being an Ohio native, he could be willing to take a pay cut to join the Crew.
Mohammed El-Munir (Re-Entry)
If the Crew is looking for a cheaper option to fill that left back spot, Mohammed El-Munir could be the team’s guy. The 28-year-old Lybian didn’t have his contract option picked up by LAFC and his last reported salary in the league was just around $200,000 in 2019.
He’s not as proven in MLS as Morrow, but played in at least 13 matches in each of his seasons in the league — appearing in 26 for Orlando City back in 2018. El-Munir, who’d also bring international experience to the team, is an offensive-minded fullback who uses his paces as his main weapon when pushing forward. He’s not a great defender but is known for his hard work on that side of the ball.
Kevin Molino (Free Agent)
It’s not clear if Kevin Molino will indeed leave Minnesota United, as head coach Adrian Heath mentioned just a few weeks ago that club and player were nearing an agreement on a new contract, but he’s one of the few starting-caliber players available and should be worth at least a call from Columbus.
The Trinidad & Tobago international had a fantastic season with the Loons in 2020, registering 13 goals and four assists in 21 matches and would fit in perfectly in the Crew’s frontline due to his pace and dribbling ability. Molino can play anywhere behind the striker and could even fill in centrally for Lucas Zelarayan if needed.
His 2019 salary was as high as $550,000 and he will likely be commanding more after his 2020 campaign, but that’s nearly the same Columbus paid for the departed Mokthar in that season, so it’s probably not completely out of reach.
Raheem Edwards (Re-Entry)
Another player from Minnesota United’s roster that could prove a decent depth option at the wings is Raheem Edwards. The Canadian’s 2019 salary of $70,000 is a bargain and makes a bet on him really attractive.
The left-footed, 25-year-old Canadian has been a journeyman in MLSm having played for four different clubs in the last five seasons, but played in 66 matches over that period and managed to score or assist in three of those seasons. Another member of Toronto’s MLS Cup-winning squad in 2017, Edwards can also play left back if needed and the inconsistency that set his career back for the last few years wouldn’t be that much of an issue with him having a limited role in Columbus.
CJ Sapong (Free Agent)
Columbus needs a reliable presence to backup Gyasi Zardes and who could do it better than a player with nearly 300 MLS matches and 73 goals under his belt? CJ Sapong has that kind of experience and has been a proven commodity in the league for years.
The 31-year-old striker has played in at least 11 matches and scored a minimum of four goals in each of the 10 years of his MLS career. His 2020 campaign was certainly the least impressive of those, but he’s just one year removed from a 13-goal season in 2019 and has the tools to provide exactly the Crew needs behind Zardes.
He made around $475,000 in 2019, which may look steep for a backup, but reliable strikers aren’t cheap and Sapong is probably aware he needs to take a pay cut after the least productive year of his career.