The 2020 Major League Soccer season begins today as Columbus Crew SC kicks off its 25th campaign against New York City FC. As is the case in most offseasons, especially after an unsuccessful year like 2019 was for the Crew, there have been changes made for the Black & Gold.
As part of our preseason preview, Massive Report is going position by position, to give readers a breakdown of what to expect in the coming year. We continue with the attackers, forwards and the center attacking midfielder.
Another season and another Argentinian No. 10 playing for the Black & Gold. However, that is where the comparisons stop between Federico Higuain and Columbus’ newest signing from Mexican club Tigres UNAL, who cost somewhere around $8 million to come to the Crew. Zelarayan made 139 appearances for Tigres with 23 goals and 14 assists during his time there. Head coach Caleb Porter, speaking about Zelarayan said, “For me, he’s one of the best No. 10s in the league and one of the best 10s I’ve coached… He’s a special player. Individually, he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and collectively he sees the game at a high level.”
Zelarayan looked good in preseason, both with his distribution and with his finishing, and the anticipation and excitement surrounding his potential and ability is palpable. In terms of his style of play, Zelarayan will be more direct than Higuain and will also have more of an impact on the defensive side of the game as well. This is Zelarayan’s opportunity to be the main attacking focal point for a club, not having the opportunity to do so at Tigres. Expect to see a noticeable improvement in this area of the pitch from last year.
The starter up top and first in the depth chart at striker, Zardes scored 13 goals last year in 28 games without Higuain. So with the addition of Zelarayan to the squad, it is entirely possible that Zardes can improve on this total. The importance of Zardes cannot be understated, as the Black & Gold looked entirely incapable of scoring when he was not on the pitch. The main feature of Zardes’ time as a forward throughout his career has always been his ability to be in the correct area of the field positionally. This has consistently resulted in Zardes being able to score one-touch goals and have opportunities that other forwards would not be positioned to take advantage of. Sure, he has missed a few goals that seemed like easy opportunities, but fans of the Black & Gold should realize that he was the top American goal scorer in MLS last season... again.
In contrast to last year, Zardes will now have Pedro Santos and Luis Diaz running down the wings, which should give him an option to spread the ball out wide and should spread opposing defenses, giving him more channels to run into. Zardes should also benefit from Zelarayan’s passing and movement, as the opposition will have to be aware of killer passes and runs coming from the midfield. Based upon the increase in strength around him, it would not be surprising to see Zardes score 20 goals this season.
One question that was never resolved by the Crew last season was where goals would come from if Zardes was on international duty or injured. Enter the man who played under Porter with the Portland Timbers, where from 2014 until 2018 he played in 124 games and started in 102. At 6-foot-4, Adi offers a potentially lethal target on balls whipped in from the wing and has the ability and strength to hold off defenders. I would expect that the Black & Gold look to play the ball to Adi’s feet and treat him more like a target striker as opposed to balls over the top for Zardes to run on to.
The idea of Adi of holding onto the ball with his back to goal and then passing out wide to a streaking Pedro Santos or Luis Diaz is a very real possibility. The real question mark for Adi is can he recover his early Portland form or will he be closer to the player who only played in 26 games in the past two seasons for the Timbers and FC Cincinnati and only scored four goals. It was this dip in form, coupled with an incident with law enforcement, in which Adi reportedly was driving 102 MPH in a 65 MPH zone, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.124 and was driving without a license, that led to the Crew picking him up off waivers in January.
Another bonus for Columbus comes from the fact that Adi is reportedly being paid only $200,000 this year in a “prove it” contract which should make the forward motivated to succeed. “Gyasi is the starter right now. I want to be clear on that,” Porter said in the preseason. “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.” Both the team and its supporters hope that Adi will be able to step in when Zardes is away or being rested and that last year’s goal-scoring woes will be a thing of the past. He is my choice among this group of a player who will surprise fans and the league.
A mid-season acquisition last year from Toronto FC (along with an international roster spot, $50,000 in Targeted Allocation Money, among other things) in exchange for Patrick Mullins, Jordan Hamilton played for a total of 56 minutes over the course of four games last year. However, Hamilton does have the advantage of being familiar with this system, which is something only he and Zardes have in common with the others on this list. In addition, Hamilton can also play on the left wing, but at this time he is also firmly down the depth chart at that position and would probably only play there if injuries occurred. I would look to see Hamilton on the field in situations where Zardes is away on National Team duty, and then only as the backup to Adi, making him third on the depth chart for the Black & Gold.
Signed by the club on Feb. 27, Berry is the Crew’s 2020 first-round SuperDraft pick from the University of San Diego. Berry (standing 6-foot-3) made 72 appearances (69 starts) for San Diego, while registering 38 goals and 16 assists from 2016-2019. In his senior year, the forward made 18 appearances (all starts) while netting 17 goals – tied for second-most goals in a single-season for the University of San Diego – and providing eight assists.
For his performance in the 2019 season, Berry was named the WCC Co-Player of the Year and he was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann National Player of the Year award. Berry spent the entire 2020 preseason on tour with the Black & Gold, which led to Berry moving up the depth chart above last year’s first-round pick, JJ Williams, who was waived by the team on Feb. 20. Berry’s signing and Williams’ being waived keeps the number of forwards for the Crew at four. Given the fact that the Black & Gold play with one forward up top, I would imagine that Berry’s time on the field for Columbus will be limited and there may be a chance he finds time on loan to a club in USL in order to get first-team experience.