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Massive Predictions: Crew’s 2020 season

What do we predict for the upcoming Black & Gold season?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the 2020 Major League Soccer season. After a longer-than-expected offseason, Columbus Crew SC is back on Sunday, opening the team’s 25th MLS campaign at MAPFRE Stadium against Eastern Conference rivals New York City FC.

Before the Crew get things going this weekend, we asked our staff members to give some predictions for how the 2020 season will play out. Here is what Massive Report is predicting for the Black & Gold this year.

When will the 2020 Crew season end? Where do the Black & Gold finish in the East?

Andrew Atkins: I’ve claimed it on Twitter, I’ve written articles about it, I’ve screamed it at passing bystanders on the street, I’ve got it tattooed on my lower back. Columbus Crew is winning the MLS Cup in 2020.

The Crew will finish above FC Cincinnati in the East.

Nick Hudak: The Crew’s season will end in a very different place than in 2019. With the bevy of offseason additions, the return of Milton Valenzuela and a healthy core from top to bottom, it’s hard to imagine this Crew side outside of the playoffs in 2020.

I see the Black & Gold vying for a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference. Granted, Major League Soccer is a very atypical league with not much translating across seasons. While I think there is a tad bit of room for the Crew to fall out and miss the playoffs altogether, I truly believe Porter finally has the team he requires to make a legitimate run at major trophies this season.

Collin Johnson: Eastern Conference Finals, Fourth in the East. It’s hard not to be optimistic about the Crew’s chances in an offseason where the team’s spine was totally upgraded. On the other hand, last season was such a disappointment even if the old core’s end was always on the horizon. Columbus improved more than any team ahead of them in last year’s Eastern Conference standings, but might still not be at the level of NYCFC, Atlanta Uniteed, or even the New England Revolution this year. Still, I think the Black & Gold can make a deep run in the playoffs, finishing the regular season in fourth and bowing out in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Adam Miller: The Black & Gold end their season in the Eastern Conference semifinal. The Crew is plenty talented enough to finish well in the regular season and win a game or two in the postseason. Ultimately, the Crew may not be deep enough to push for an Eastern Conference championship or an MLS Cup. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Columbus finishes third in the Eastern, which looks to be a little top heavy this year. There won’t be many (if any) games where the Black & Gold will be outmatched. However, Columbus has elected not to play games during international breaks this year, so as to not play a large number of games with out guys like Gyasi Zardes, Luis Diaz and Eloy room. The fallout from this will be that the Crew has a few stretches of multiple games in short amounts of time. I expect a few points to be dropped at different occasions throughout the year in these situations.

David Lewis: I am excited about this squad. This feels like Caleb Porter’s team (See Fanedno Adi and Darlington Nagbe) and less of Gregg Berhalter’s (see no Wil Trapp or Federico Higuain). Coming off a playoff-empty season, I must temper my excitement a little. Yes, the Crew had a nice run at the end of the season, but it wasn’t the most pleasing on the eye. This year’s version will be more eye opening.

It’s a tough Eastern Conference but not as strong as the West. Atlanta United will be good (again). D.C. United will be improved, and even though New York City FC will take time getting used to a new coach, I think they will be there. I see the Crew fighting for the fourth and fifth place playoff spots with Toronto FC, the New York Red Bull, the Philadelphia Union and maybe one surprise team like Orlando City. If things fall perfectly, the Black & Gold could push for second or third. I want to say the team loses in the Eastern Conference Final, but that’s my heart speaking and not my brain. More realistic? Columbus wins in the opening playoff round but loses in the next. Something to build on for the followings season when they move into the new building.

Guilherme Torres: I think it’s very obvious that the Crew improved its roster considerably from 2019 and with Caleb Porter and the coaching staff being at the club for longer, that should lead to a better campaign. I also think the Eastern Conference as a whole is weaker in 2020, so I like the Crew’s chances. I would put the team at finishing third in the East in the regular season and losing in the conference semifinals.

Dave Hageman: The Crew has undoubtedly improved this offseason. The only problem is that pretty much every other team has, as well (the dumpster fire to our south perhaps being an exception). I think the standard of play will be higher across the board and I think Columbus will struggle at times but ultimately the Goldfinches will battle for one of the last two playoff positions and go out in the first round. The main thing will be to generate excitement and optimism for 2021, however, so I think a respectable showing this year will be important to the organization.

Thomas Costello: In 2019, the Crew scored the third-lowest amount of goals of any team in Major League Soccer. The addition of Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, Chris Cadden and the return of Milton Valenzuela will provide an offensive spark for a club that desperately needs it. Valenzuela coming back from injury is one of the most exciting prospects for me going into 2020. Nine of the Black & Gold’s 16 losses from a year ago were by a single goal too, so there may be extra points on the table if the group can mesh well under Caleb Porter’s system. The defense doesn’t worry me as much, since the group was strong even with none of the defenders playing in 30 matches. A healthy pairing, and rotation, will only solidify an already solid backline.

The 2020 season will see the Crew return to the postseason, and through the first round of the playoffs. No level of success would surprise me with the group that’s been assembled, but it all depends on how well it all clicks.

Doug Hildreth: I think the answer to both of these questions depends on depth. The starting 11 is vastly improved from last year, but beyond that is a lot of question marks. Barring any catastrophic injuries, Crew finish top three in the Eastern conference. I believe at least one of the top three from last year will drop off, and with the notable upgrades by Tim Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter, the Crew is poised to take their place. That being said, the lack of depth makes me nervous about the actual playoffs. Without some reinforcements (either through the transfer window, or some pleasant surprises), the Black & Gold might run out of gas before a deep run. I think Columbus makes it to Conference finals, then it’s all about luck.

Drew Niccum: In the Conference Finals and third in the East. With the offseason signings of Lucas Zelarayán and Darlington Nagbe, the Crew have signaled their intent to challenge for the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Missing the playoffs is not an option for this team and I expect them to comfortably secure a playoff berth. 3 rd may seem a bit optimistic, but at a moment when a lot of the East is in rebuild or transition, the Crew have an opportunity to stake their claim as one of the top teams in the league. I have them falling short of their ultimate goal and going out in the Conference Finals, but they are welcome to prove me wrong.

Orri Benatar: This is the kind of season that is full of potential for the Crew. The addition of Lucas Zelarayan and the fullbacks returning means the Black & Gold shouldn’t have a season with multiple five-game losing streaks. Caleb Porter and his side are a playoff team in the East so I’ll say a fifth-place finish and a first or second round exit. This team is in a good spot but isn’t with the likes of Atlanta United or Toronto FC quite yet.

Derrick Smith: The Crew season ends with the club making the playoffs and pressing for a berth into the MLS Cup Final where they play away to the best team in LA, Los Angeles Football Club. Nothing like a little expectation, eh?

Jay Homan: After the injury plagued season of 2019, I expect the Crew to find its way back into the playoffs in 2020. By the end of the last campaign, the team was competing with the top teams in the East and threatening to push for the last playoff spot. Take away all those 80-plus minutes goals conceded last year and the season looks drastically different. All the new faces in the club will give this team a brand new feel and help push the group back to where the fans are used to seeing them. I expect them to finish fifth in the East and bow out in the second round of the playoffs.

Jimmy Lentz: Columbus Crew SC makes the MLS Cup playoffs, as one of the low seeds, but that’s likely where the season ends. Major improvements are needed from last year to be real contenders for the big trophies, yet it seems as if only tweaks have been made, like with similarly skilled replacements for key outgoing talent (Lucas Zelarayan for Federico Higuain, Darlington Nagbe for Wil Trapp). If 2020 is essentially about doubling down on 2019 with mild differences, then expect mild differences for this season’s final outcomes concerning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, MLS Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

Eliot McKinley: I think the season ends with a first-round playoff exit. I have the Crew finishing sixth and losing on the road in the playoffs. That said, this is a deep squad and if everything clicks and injuries are avoided, they could make a run for the MLS Cup.

Patrick Guldan: In the playoffs, but on the road in the first round. This team improved significantly, but there’s a lot of turnover that will take some time to settle. Additionally, there are some questions defensively if Vito Wormgoor requires the time to adapt to the league, how much Harrison Afful’s defense continues to decline and who in the midfield can disrupt attacks consistently enough. The ceiling is high, but it’s how well they weather the questions.

Patrick Murphy: I like this Crew roster quite a bit. It doesn’t have the highly-rated talent of Los Angeles Football Club or Atlanta United, but it appears to be a well-constructed team. The upgrades started last summer and continued this offseason. Crew fans love Wil Trapp, but Darlington Nagbe will provide much more range and chance-creation than the former Homegrown midfielder. Lucas Zelarayan only has to be as good as a 30-plus-year-old Federico Higuain to give the team a true No. 10.

Because of this, I think the Black & Gold make a return to the MLS Cup playoffs as the third or fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. I think the Crew could make a run to the Eastern Conference Final if things go right, but I envision Columbus probably going out a round earlier.

Who is the offensive MVP?

Andrew Atkins: Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct answer. Barring injury, Lucas Zelarayan is almost guaranteed to be the key figure of the Columbus offense. Look for the Black & Gold’s new Designated Player to lead the club in assists and be second to only Gyasi Zardes in goals scored.

Nick Hudak: Of course, Gyasi Zardes is going to be scoring a bulk of the goals for the Black & Gold this season. However, it’s going to be up to those around him creating the opportunities for him to get on the scoresheet. That is why the offensive MVP is going to be club-record signing Lucas Zelarayan. The Mexican playmaker is stepping into a huge void left by former No. 10 Federico Higuain, who was the team’s best player during his entire tenure in Central Ohio. Through his numerous highlight reels in Liga MX, you have to assume that Zelarayan has the potential to have a breakout year in his new league. Knock on wood, but don’t be surprised to see a 10-plus goal, 10-plus assist season for the Crew’s new No. 10.

Collin Johnson: Lucas Zelarayan. If the Crew is going to make the Eastern Conference Finals, it means Zelarayan is the offensive spark that the club expects him to be. Zelarayan brings a much different skill set to the table than that of countryman Federico Higuain, but that more direct approach is exactly what Caleb Porter is looking for. Zelarayan may not score many goals or have many assists but look for him to be a noticeable offensive force.

Adam Miller: Gyasi Zardes will be the offensive MVP for the Crew. Perhaps a boring prediction on my part, but Zardes seems poised to contribute in large amounts this year. Zardes has looked the part in preseason with three goals in two games played and is best when finishing off of service from wide areas. Thus, with consistent service from the likes of Luis Diaz, Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelaryan, Harrison Afful, Milton Valenzuela and Chris Cadden, Zardes looks poised to have another banner year in the Black and Gold.

Dave Lewis: Gyasi Zardes will have a monster season. I think 18-22 goals if he stays healthy. I think with Fanendo Adi spelling him a bit, he will be fresher — he really didn’t have much help last year. I think Lucas “El Chino” Zelarayan will be a close second. It will take him a little time to get acclimated to MLS, but once he does, the assists will pile up – mostly to Zardes.

Guilherme Torres: I have to go with Pedro Santos. It’s almost guaranteed Gyasi Zardes will score more goals than the Portuguese winger, but when you add Santos’ assists, his versatility and his efficiency in set pieces, it’s tough to beat. I think Lucas Zelarayan has the talent to carry this team offensively, but I don’t see it happening during his first season at the club and the league.

David Hageman: Lucas Zelarayan. His price tag, reputation and the high expectations mean that he should be the offensive star this year. If not, something has gone wrong. I don’t think he’ll score a ton of goals but if he can improve a bit on Federico Higuain’s goals and assists rate the past few years, he’ll be worth every penny (which is easy to say because it’s not my money).

Thomas Costello: Gyasi Zardes is my pick for offensive MVP. His offensive numbers dipped from 2018 to 2019 but last season didn’t see him playing with consistent fullbacks to enhance delivery into the box. With Lucas Zelarayan, Luis Diaz and Pedro Santos playing forward, Zardes will have more space to work and score. Also, he will have competition behind in with Fanendo Adi. If Zardes can take advantage of this high-powered offense, and make the competitive pressure elevate his game, he should have no problem scoring over 20 goals.

Doug Hildreth: I can’t help but believe we are going to see a noticeable increase in offensive output this season. The additions of Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe (to both create offensive chances and to open up opportunities for Pedro Santos in his return to the wing) will almost assuredly improve on last season’s less-than-stellar offensive showing. I think Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos will increase their offensive numbers, but I think Zelarayan is special. The unprecedented nature of his signing with this club will definitely put the spotlight on the No. 10, but the preseason has shown that he won’t shy away from making the play. I don’t see the Crew getting very far without Zelarayan being their offensive MVP.

Orri Benatar: This guy will be a massive piece for the offense this season and as the club’s record-signing, expectations are high for Lucas Zelarayan. He has the potential for a 10-goal, 10-assist season and can take the scoring load off of Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos, who combined for more than 80 percent of the Crew’s goals last season. If the Black & Gold make a run, he’ll be a major reason for that.

Drew Niccum: Lucas Zelarayan. For the Crew to achieve the team’s lofty goals for the season, they need good production out of central midfield. While Darlington Nagbe will also be important to this production, Zelarayan is likely to be the major conduit for distributing the ball to Zardes and the wingers. Having proven his talent with one of the most dominant teams in Liga MX in Tigres, Crew fans should expect a playmaker who can perform in difficult situations. With the offense running through him, the Crew should improve immensely on its dismal goal scoring record from last season.

Derrick Smith: Lucas Zelarayan will revitalize the offense much like fellow legendary Argentine midfielders, Federico Higuain and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, did in recent history for the club.

Jay Homan: This is the hardest prediction for me, common sense tells me to go with with Gyasi Zardes or Lucas Zelarayan, but I am going to select Pedro Santos. He stepped up when the Crew needed someone last season and I expect that confidence and leadership to carry over. He is not going to be the goal leader (likely Zardes) or even the assist leader (likely Zelararyan) this season, but he will have a hand in both. With more freedom and consistency on the wing this season, he has the potential to push for double digit goals and assists. If that does happen, I would love to see the stats of the player who is voted offensive MVP over him.

Jimmy Lentz: If Crew players and coaches utilize Gyasi Zardes’ strengths in the air as well as his skill set when he has the ball at his feet for scoring goals, distributing assists and setting up Columbus in the final third, then this season’s offensive MVP will be the team’s No. 11. If not, then Lucas Zelarayan will be the offensive MVP with a nice collection of goals and assists running the central midfield.

Eliot McKinley: Gyasi Zardes. With a full season of Luis Diaz providing service and Lucas Zelarayan arriving to pull the strings in the middle of the field, Zardes should have the service he was missing most of last season. If he approaches 20 goals this year, he is the MVP.

Patrick Guldan: Lucas Zelarayan. The weight is fully on the multimillion dollar man’s shoulders, but he’s surrounded by more talent than the Crew have had in a couple years and in an offense that caters to his strengths. Zelarayan is able to run with the ball at his feet, making him a great fit for the Crew’s transition attack. He’ll get his share of goals and assists, but his influence will go beyond numbers in the best way Federico Higuain was in the past.

Patrick Murphy: To me, this has to be Gyasi Zardes. Assuming the U.S. international stays healthy this year, he is the head of a Crew attack that should be much improved. This will lead to better service for Zardes and, although he doesn’t score at a rate Crew fans would like, he will have enough chances for another great season with the Black & Gold.

Who is the defensive MVP?

Andrew Atkins: While this writer is excited to see the powerhouse duo of Vito Wormgoor and Jonathan Mensah, the returning Milton Valenzuela is the perfect combination of age, talent and hunger to be the breakout star of the most stacked Columbus defense in recent history.

Nick Hudak: This answer comes down one player and one player only: Milton Valenzuela. After missing all of 2019 with a devastating ACL injury, he’s returned in the preseason and has provided his typical flare for the Columbus backline. Caleb Porter has consistently spoke highly of the Argentinian and it’s obvious in his talent through his play. He simply understands the game better than most, especially at his position. Barring another injury bug, the left back could very well be the team’s overall MVP in 2020.

Collin Johnson: Milton Valenzuela. Before his injury, Valenzuela was one of the best left backs in all of MLS. His ability to play intelligent defense in combination with his, slightly more raw, attacking talents make him one of the most exciting young players in Columbus. Valenzuela was able to train with the team toward the end of the 2019 season and has jumped into preseason in comparable form to 2018. The Argentine doesn’t seem to show any signs of rust and will return to his post as one of the best outside backs in MLS.

Adam Miller: No Room for discussion here, Eloy Room will be the Crew’s Defensive MVP. After a breakout performance for Curaçao in the Gold Cup last summer, Room joined the Black & Gold as the replacement to Zack Steffan. While certainly big shoes to fill, Room filled in without a slip making several impressive and important saves along the way. Room has looked very sharp in preseason and looks set to impress in his first full year in Columbus.

Dave Lewis: I think Jonathan Mensah will be a rock in the back. He is a DP and this year he will play like one. He is almost 30 now, has experience in Europe and has been with the Crew long enough to make him the captain. I can see Mensah scoring three to five goals this season with his head. Milton Valenzuela gets honorable mention.

Guilherme Torres: Milton Valenzuela. Not seeing the Argentinean play a single minute in 2019 might have made a lot of people forget how good he’s on defense, especially on 1-v-1 situations, but not me. I think Jonathan Mensah and Vito Wormgoor will be super solid together, but Valenzuela’s ability to lock down talented wingers by himself will prove more important.

David Hageman: Milton Valenzuela. Hopefully he returns from injury with something to prove, if only to position himself for a move to Europe. Which would be less than ideal from a Crew perspective but at least the club would be able to get a good chunk of money for him if he shows well this year.

Thomas Costello: Jonathan Mensah will come back strong from injury and elevate the center back pairings. Having Vito Wormgoor paired with him will allow Mensah to provide instruction to the midfield more clearly and cover the counter with Wormgoor roaming. Mensah will embrace his captains (Editor’s Note: This has not been announced as of this writing.) role and bring needed consistency to the center back rotation.

Doug Hildreth: I think this will depend greatly on Darlington Nagbe’s defensive presence. If Nagbe can track back a little more reliably and cover for the wing backs when they creep forward during the attack, he might be our under-the-radar defensive MVP. Beyond that, new addition Vito Wormgoor could be a key defensive improvement. Wormgoor brings proven skill to the back half and has been reliable during preseason. During the Crew’s Sun Cup-winning run, Wormgoor was a calm and decisive presence: exactly what you look for in center back. I think he will bring stability and reliability to the defensive end, giving Jonathan Mensah much-needed support. Wormgoor can be the kind of experienced defensive presence Nat Borchers was in Caleb Porter’s 2015 MLS Cup run. I can’t help but see Wormgoor as a defensive improvement, and with a physical presence like he has, he will be noticeable, and will garnish MVP attention.

Orri Benatar: Jonathan Mensah. As one of the leaders of the defense and the club, Mensah always has got the team’s back. He will help the Crew bounce back with stellar defensive performances in that backline alongside new center back partner, Vito Wormgoor.

Drew Niccum: Eloy Room. A more obvious answer may be Milton Valenzuela, but we’ve all seen the importance of a great goalkeeper behind the Crew backline. Room proved his ability last season, both in the Gold Cup and in MLS. He has been in good form during preseason and I think he has the potential be one of the top keepers in the league this season. Combine Room’s talent with a (hopefully) stable backline, and the Crew is set up to have a formidable defensive record. Expect the Nordecke to be chanting his name a lot this year.

Derrick Smith: Milton Valenzuela will be responsible for shutting down an ever growing presence of talented wingers in the league and will remind people why the club holds his services with high regard. Valenzuela earns his ticket to Europe with his performance this season.

Jay Homan: I am taking the easy option of the goalkeeper, Eloy Room. I don’t need to remind anyone that the backline struggled last year in the least ideal of times. Even with all the additional depth and the return of some missed faces, it is going to take some time for this backline to gel. And when the backline is still getting things nailed down the Crew will need Room to perform some magic to stay in games. Oh, and I am expecting the first playoff game to go to penalty kicks (in typical Crew fashion) and Room having all the fans going “Steffen who?”

Jimmy Lentz: Milton Valenzuela. Returning from injury, he will take full advantage of getting back on the pitch for a full MLS season. And I expect him to take a leadership role of sorts in the defense, especially given how much he will be used offensively as a wing back. Valenzuela should have an acute awareness of the space he’s leaving behind when regularly moving forward, thereby directing supporting coverage and organization across the defensive backline that wasn’t there in 2019 (well, one can hope).

Eliot McKinley: Milton Valenzuela. Valenzuela’s value to the team was highlighted when he missed all of last season with an ACL injury. A true modern fullback, he is dangerous going forward but was also one of the best one-on-one defenders in MLS in 2018. If he performs well, the Crew may have a difficult decision on whether to keep him another season or sell to the highest bidder.

Patrick Guldan: Milton Valenzuela was an excellent defender two seasons ago and he’s appeared to come back strong after his ACL injury. No player is better facing up one on one and having him on the left side protects Vito Wormgoor more than any of the team’s left backs from last season.

Patrick Murphy: It didn’t take long watching preseason games to be reminded of how good Milton Valenzuela was two years ago in his first season with the Crew. The left back came in as a solid defender who wasn’t afraid to handle his man one v. one. That should only improve this year as he also continues to progress as a fullback attacker.

Who is the team’s best newcomer?

Andrew Atkins: You have to score goals to win soccer games. The best defense in the league is irrelevant with a flatlined offense. I look for Lucas Zelarayan to be that difference maker.

Nick Hudak: Darlington Nagbe. Why? There’s nothing quite like the player-coach bond that Caleb Porter and Nagbe share. This will be the third different time that Porter will be coaching Nagbe. First, at the University of Akron and again in Portland with the Timbers. Nagbe showcased his best football with Porter calling the shots. I don’t see any reason to believe any different this time around.

By the end of the season, the stats will show Lucas Zelarayan ultimately being the team’s best newcomer. Nagbe does most of his work where the stats don’t go, and his playing style is exactly what Porter will need especially after Wil Trapp’s departure.

Collin Johnson: Darlington Nagbe. Not often does one of the league’s best players actively seek a trade to Columbus but that’s exactly what happened with Ohio’s own Darlington Nagbe. After standing out with the Portland Timbers, and flirting with a move to Europe, Nagbe was shipped to Atlanta United. In Atlanta he initially struggled to find his footing, but eventually did and helped lead the Five Stripes to an MLS Cup. Nagbe is familiar with Porter’s style so there should be little to no time needed to settle in with the team.

Adam Miller: Get used to hearing the name Vito Wormgoor in Columbus. The 31-year-old Dutchman will have a huge impact for the Crew this year. Joining from SK Brann in Norway, Wormgoor has looked ever bit of a standout center back in the MLS. Wormgoor is very good in aerial challenges and as an individual defender, but perhaps his best attribute for the Crew will be his distribution out of the back. His distribution and passing has been featured all preseason by the Crew. His ability to play balls on the ground into the midfield and longer diagonal balls will greatly improve Columbus’ ability to beat a high-press from the opposition.

Dave Lewis: This is no knock on Lucas Zelarayan — he will be good — but I think the newcomer to make the most impact will be Vito Wormgoor. The grit, the experience (played in the Eredivisie) and overall leadership skills he possesses will endear him to the supporters. Plus, with that kind of hair, he should intimidate a few forwards just by looking at them.

Guilherme Torres: Based on preseason, it gotta be Darlington Nagbe. He won’t score a lot of goals or provide dozens of assists, but the way he impacts the game is ridiculous. I think he’ll easily be one of the three most important players in the team and basically everything the Crew creates goes through his feet, either sooner or later.

David Hageman: Lucas Zelarayan again (see above).

Thomas Costello: Darlington Nagbe has the upper hand in this battle for best newcomer, coming in with strong knowledge of Caleb Porter’s system. Nagbe excels at controlling the midfield and distributing to his teammates. He may not see big goal or assist numbers that the fans love, but his play and ability to relieve pressure and move the team forward will pay dividends.

Doug Hildreth: Given that both my offensive and defensive MVP are newcomers, this is understandably tricky to predict. I’m going to go with Lucas Zelayaran. If there was one end of the pitch that the Crew struggled in, it was the offense. While I think Darlington Nagbe will be an invaluable addition to Caleb Porter’s side, and Vito Wormgoor will be the reinforcement to Columbus’ spine that the team lacked for several years, I think it all depends on Zelarayan. Not to draw too many comparisons to Porter’s side that came into Columbus in 2015 and won a cup, but I can’t help but notice some parallels between Zelarayan and 2015 MLS cup MVP Diego Valeri. Both creative attacking midfielders that look to lead their respective sides in scoring, and have the skill to make some magic happen. Zelaryan adds an overall legitimate presence the Crew missed for a couple of seasons. He is the first true superstar the Crew have seen since Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and I think he is up for the challenge.

Orri Benatar: Lucas Zelarayan (see above).

Drew Niccum: Darlington Nagbe. Yes, I know I tapped Lucas Zelarayan to be offensive MVP. But I can’t help thinking that Nagbe has the potential to be more valuable to this team in all facets of the game. He will probably be most noted for his ability to create and his connections with Zelarayan and the wingers. But his most important moments will arise out of his sheer presence in midfield and his ability to break apart opposing counter attacks and pressing. With Nagbe extra-motivated to perform with his return to his home state, expect him to dominate on both sides of the ball and to be one of the main reasons the Crew secure a home playoff game.

Derrick Smith: Speaking of Europe, the Crew finds a gem this summer, signing the former Posh star and current Hull City versatile midfielder Marcus Maddison to help solidify their push to playoff glory. Maddison can play on the wing or come in to spell Zelarayán late in matches. With Allocation money, Bez and Co. can bring over this maestro on the relative cheap.

Jay Homan: Darlington Nagbe. He has already gotten a decent amount of flack for being a “Porter guy” and his numbers are not going to flash on a stats sheet, but Nagbe will bring leadership and tenacity to the midfield. He will work opponents off the ball and get the ball up field quickly. He has helped two other clubs win MLS Cups. Do not expect him to rest on these laurels in Columbus.

Jimmy Lentz: Lucas Zelarayan. The Crew SC’s new No. 10 will take over maestro responsibilities in the middle of the pitch, ready to showcase his skill set for (hopefully) adding dynamism to the final third. The preseason revealed he’s got something exciting to offer the club. And expect constant playmaking style and statistical comparisons to former Crew Argentinians Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Federico Higuain. That’s just part of the game.

Eliot McKinley: Lucas Zelarayan. If Zelarayan isn’t the Crew’s best newcomer that means the Crew probably did not have a great season.

Patrick Guldan: Lucas Zelaryan will be as good as advertised and make the highlight plays that fans will see, but Darlington Nagbe make a similar impact, just in a way that isn’t readily apparent. With the move to a transition attack, Nagbe will be the key to moving the ball from defense to attack at speed. He won’t tally double digit assists, but so many Crew goals in 2020 will come back to a Nagbe pass that started things.

Patrick Murphy: Darlington Nagbe is a player I’ve enjoyed watching since he came into MLS with the Portland Timbers. You won’t see a ton of statistics from the midfielder but, as I noted above, he has a great passing range and covers a lot of ground. He’s going to slot into a very similar role as Wil Trapp but will be able to create attacks better for the Black & Gold this year.

Who is the team’s surprise player?

Andrew Atkins: The man I almost put as “team’s best newcomer” but removed for fear of hate mail. Perhaps no current player in MLS has had the fall from grace as Fanendo Adi has experienced. However, he’s a former top tier MLS forward with something to prove. Adi adds a depth to the Crew forward position not seen since Ola Kamara, and I think he’ll use his year back under Caleb Porter to silence the naysayers.

Nick Hudak: This could be a number of players, as Caleb Porter will be calling on many to step up and help return Columbus to playoff glory and beyond. While I do believe that Chris Cadden is someone to note here and will come into the squad and provide a quality spark, the team’s surprise player (who isn’t THAT much of a surprise) to me is Luis Diaz. Diaz came into the squad late into last season and showed glimpses of his playmaking ability. His uncanny ability to create his own goals is something that Gyasi Zardes struggles with and is something you see at times in Pedro Santos. I think of his goal against Atlanta United away in 2019 every night when I go to sleep. Even with a loaded winger core, Diaz will have all the opportunities in the world to showcase himself in 2020.

Collin Johnson: Derrick Etienne. At only 23 years old, Etienne already has more than 100 professional appearances. I was surprised that both the New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati were willing to move on from the young, pacy and affordable winger but their loss is the Black & Gold’s gain. Etienne will be consistently deployed at the wing, allowing him the positional stability he was unable to find with NYRB or FCC. I expect Etienne to be a super sub who consistently pushes for starting time as he beds in with the system.

Adam Miller: There’s a reason that Karl Robinson and Oxford United fans threw a fit when Chris Cadden completed his transfer to Columbus this winter. Cadden was main feature for the League One side early on in the year and looks poised to play an important role for the Crew this year. Cadden, and outside back, has been very impressive so far in preseason. A constant presence up and down the flank, Cadden has played an important role in the Black & Gold’s attack in the preseason. While Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful will likely start at outside back this year, Cadden will be a hugely important depth player in the tough stretches of games the Crew will face this year and will keep the pressure on Valenzuela and Afful to perform.

Dave Lewis: There will be a lot of little surprises this year. I think if Aidan Morris gets any kind of minutes, which will be hard, he will make an impact in a defensive central midfield role alongside Darlington Nagbe. But unfortunately, it may take injuries for him to see time on the field. I am going with my gut. I like Chris Cadden to surprise us the most (honorable mention goes to Derrick Etienne). The Scotsmen is versatile and can play in the back or in the midfield. I see him as a utility guy that gets spot starts and comes in to spell tired legs. But injuries happen and I could see this guy stepping in and playing meaningful minutes, maybe even pushing the starters for a spot. I hope he surprises all of us.

Guilherme Torres: I really liked what I saw from Chris Cadden and I believe he’ll have plenty of opportunities to see the field as he can play at both right back and right midfielder. Harrison Afful has been on and off lately and I think Cadden is just as aggressive offensively as the Ghanaian, which should put him in position to be subbed in and even to start matches when Afful gets cold.

David Hageman: Chris Cadden will win the Connor Maloney Memorial Scrappy White Guy Award and become a fan favorite because of his versatility to fill in for an aging Harrison Afful or when the injury bug hits in other parts of the field.

Thomas Costello: Axel Sjoberg is my dark horse for surprise player of the club. True, he’s had some injury issues in his time in Major League Soccer, but he has also shown flashes of being a strong defender. Some of those missed games weren’t for injury too but for change in leadership and not fitting the system. He can come in with the scrappy “no one believes in me” mentality. If he can come in as someone who has something to prove, he has the capacity to be great. If Jonathan Mensah or Vito Wormgoor miss time, or Wormgoor has trouble adapting to league play, he could find his place in this club.

Doug Hildreth: The name I have snuck in throughout this preview is Darlington Nagbe. I think he embodies the offseason moves this front office made and will be emblematic of whether this season is successful or not. Somewhat the straw that stirs the drink in Caleb Porter’s system, Nagbe will track back to reinforce the already reinforced and recently upgraded defense. Look for him to help create the starts of offensive chances for the likes of Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayan and ultimately Gyasi Zardes. A lot of play will go through (or intentionally not through) Nagbe. And whether you see his name on the stat line a lot, I truly believe he will make or break this season this year.

Orri Benatar: Fanendo Adi. Adi joining certainly surprised people but he will add more variety in the offense as a sub and maybe work his way up to start some games. Re-joining Caleb Porter will help his confidence grow and he can get some late game-deciding goals that could propel the Crew in those playoff atmosphere matches in the regular season.

Drew Niccum: Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhalter. With little depth in central midfield, the Crew is going to need to rely on the two Homegrown signings to make an impact. The level of that impact will of course depend on the week to week schedule of games and the health of the starting midfielders. Morris and Berhalter may be rookies, but the club clearly believes in their talent, enough so to sign them after only one year in college soccer. While the Crew could always bring in more midfield depth, the team is sticking with the two rookies for now and I think we should expect some good performances from the two 18 year olds.

Derrick Smith: Chris Cadden steps up in a big way and turns heads across the league as he settles in nicely with his role in the club.

Jay Homan: There are only a handful of players I feel like could fit this profile. You have your new Homegrowns like Aidan Morris or Sebastian Berhalter. Or maybe your newer but not fully vetted players like Youness Mokhtar or Aboubacar Keita. But I am going to go with Chris Cadden. He is listed as both a midfielder and defender on the roster, and if last season tells you anything, Caleb Porter loves his utility players that are willing to go after the game. He may not show up until the second half of the season but I get a Luis Argudo vibe about him.

Jimmy Lentz: Axel Sjoberg. The 6-foot-7 defender may or may not get a lot of playing time this year, but surely there are a few free kick plays being designed specifically for him when he is on the pitch. It wouldn’t surprise me if he tallies two or three goals, or possibly even an assist or two, in critical moments from corners or free kicks outside the 18-yard box for the Black & Gold in 2020.

Eliot McKinley: Aidan Morris. While Darlington Nagbe and Artur are the starters at center midfield, they both can’t play every game this season. With no veteran backups, Morris and fellow rookie Sebastian Berhalter may get plenty of minutes in rotation and in case of injury to either Nagbe or Artur. Voted the top Freshman college player in the country, look for Morris to surprise in his first season.

Patrick Guldan: There’s a lot of competition for this honor as the Crew brought in a lot of talent this offseason, but the surprise will come from one of the less-heralded depth signings. Chris Cadden adds flexibility on the right and Fanendo Adi has a goal scoring history, but Derrick Etienne Jr. will turn out to be the impact sub that the team has missed. That won’t mean more than a handful of goals, but he will create mismatches late in the game and be a good spot starter for a team that’s lacked it in the past couple years.

Patrick Murphy: Some Crew fans were’t happy to see the Crew add a cheap Fandendo Adi to the roster. I don’t know if that’s because he played for Caleb Porter before — and somehow that’s a bad thing — or if it’s due to his rough year on and off the field with FC Cincinnati last season, but I don’t understand it. The Black & Gold got a proven MLS goal scorer for a fraction of his price tag. While he may not score 10 goals just due to a lack of opportunity, I think he will surprise people and prove the doubters wrong in 2020.


Give us your thoughts on these questions and your predictions for the upcoming Crew season in the comment section below.