Columbus Crew SC had a number of issues in 2019 that saw the team miss the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in three years. Among the injuries and costly defensive mistakes was the Black & Gold’s inability to score consistently.
The Crew scored 39 goals last year, the team’s fewest in a regular season since before Major League Soccer went to a 34-game schedule in 2011. The Black & Gold were shutout 12 times and only scored more than one goal in a match 13 times. While losing Federico Higuain to a knee injury in late May certainly affected the team’s offense, winger Pedro Santos slotted in at the attacking midfield role and finished with 11 goals and six assists.
But when forward Gyasi Zardes missed four games while on international duty with the United States Men’s National Team for the Gold Cup, the Black & Gold went 0-4 and managed to score just one goal. A combination of rookie JJ Williams and veteran Patrick Mullins failed to find the net in any of those matches.
In 2020, the Crew did not want to have similar issues offensively. While the Black & Gold brought back Williams and former Toronto FC Homegrown product Jordan Hamilon, who the team acquired in a trade midseason, team president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter wanted more quality depth.
That is why when the opportunity presented itself to add forward Fanendo Adi to the roster this offseason, a player who scored double-digit goals in each of three seasons under Porter while with the Portland Timbers, Columbus jumped at it. The fact that the team will pay the striker reportedly only $200,000 this year made the deal even sweeter.
But there was also a reason Adi was available. The forward came off a disappointing year with FC Cincinnati in 2019 where he scored once in 12 games. In addition to battling injuries, Adi was pulled over in late March after driving 102 mph in a 65 mph zone. He failed a breathalyzer test during the stop and did not have a valid driver’s American license. Adi was suspended by MLS and Cincinnati and placed in the League’s substance abuse program before he was waived by the club in January.
Because of this issue, the Crew made sure to vet Adi thoroughly before signing him.
“There was a pause for sure,” Porter said. “But at the same time, players are humans. We’re all humans. People make mistakes. I spoke with Adi, had a good conversation with him. He admitted that it was a tough and difficult year last year. He seemed to have his head screwed on right. He was really hungry. He wanted to be with Columbus, he wanted to be back with my staff and I know what he’s capable of.
“He had also come off a couple years where he had some injuries and we wanted to make sure we dug into that. So we went through the same process that we do in adding every player, where we don’t leave any stone unturned. I would just say that we were probably more careful than ever making sure that it was the right move.”
Porter made it clear that he did not want to bring Adi to the Crew to have the move fail. The two have successful memories together when Adi was one of the best forwards in MLS and helped Porter and the Timbers lift the 2015 MLS Cup. In order to maintain that relationship, Porter had to know Round 2 was going to also be successful.
After talking with Adi, Porter believes that it will be.
“Because of the relationship, because of hearing from him, seeming like he was in a good spot mentally and admitting that last year was tough and then the finances meant that this was going to be a really good and smart bit of business to get a player like him, who three years ago was one of the best strikers in the league,” Porter explained. “So I would say, based on working with him now a week, that’s been a really good move. Excellent depth for us in the No. 9 position.”
So how will it work with Adi on the Crew? The last time Adi scored double-digit goals was in 2017 and he did so as the starting forward in Portland. In Columbus, Zardes is established as the starter with 32 goals in two seasons with the Black & Gold.
According to Porter, he sees the relationship working similarly to how Adi and Maxi Urutti managed in two seasons together in Portland. Over that stretch, Urutti actually played in more matches — 60 games to Adi’s 57 — but Adi started 41 times in comparison to Urutti’s 24 starts. The results were a combined 46 regular season goals and an MLS Cup title.
“Gyasi is the starter right now. I want to be clear on that,” Porter said. “Adi knows that as well. Will Adi start games? Yes. We’ll play in a lot of compacted windows. We’re not playing in the international break so that means that we’re going to have to play in compacted windows more than ever and now we have depth to be able to rotate and not miss a beat.”
Last year, the Crew were overly reliant on Zardes, as the forward scored one-third of the team’s goals. When Zardes was not available, the Black & Gold managed to find the back of the net just once. For a team that wants to contend for championships, that offense is not good enough.
With the addition of Adi, Columbus believes it has two of the better forwards in MLS on the roster and arguably the best striker depth in the League. When Zardes is away or needs rest, something he rarely received last year, Adi will be available to step in and, ideally, keep the offense dangerous and maintain the goal scoring.
“I think it’s gonna be a unique situation where they will be competing for minutes but also there’ll be a respect with each other where it’s healthy,” Porter said.
“It’s a great situation to have a good one-two punch where we can rotate. And also the competition of it. Gyasi needs to be pushed. He needs to know there’s a guy breathing down his neck. That’s healthy. Ultimately that’s going to make Gyasi perform and be hungry and be even better than he is.”