In two seasons since the Columbus Crew’s ownership changed hands, the Black & Gold have accomplished a lot, including winning the team’s second MLS Cup to end the 2020 season and getting a new stadium and training center nearly built. But there remains a hole on the player development side that the Black & Gold hope to fill.
That hole comes along the pathway for players from the Crew Academy to the Crew first team. The solution is a second team that could be on its way in the near future. As previously reported, the Black & Gold hope to have a Crew II side in the 2021 season.
“It’s massive,” head coach Caleb Porter said of a potential second team. “You look at any top club in the world, they have a pathway and an infrastructure where there’s no gaps or holes. When you look at right now, our academy and what we’re doing, the players we’re producing, the way we’re developing players, really that’s the final piece in our pathway is that reserve team, that second team. Really important.”
Unlike MLS second teams in recent years, which were a part of the USL divisions, the Crew plans to take part in the upcoming MLS reserve league. MLS’s previous two attempts at a reserve league failed, but there is a better plan and an infrastructure this time around.
“It’s funny because I would laugh at the old reserve league,” Crew technical director and VP of soccer operations Pat Onstad said. “Obviously I’d be playing but then on Sunday morning, you go and watch the reserve league and Alexi Lalas was our GM in San Jose and he’s dressing up, playing center back.”
Don’t expect Onstad to suit up in goal for what will essentially be a Crew Under-23 team. This team will feature three types of players to make up the roster. The first will be players signed directly to the reserve team. The second will be players from the first team that are in need of minutes or returning from an injury and not yet ready for MLS action. The final will be Academy players who the club feels are ready to see action at a higher level — although potential college eligibility rules will have to be sorted out.
It is the second two types of players that will most interest Black & Gold fans at this time. The Crew has consistently produced talent from its Academy with names such as Wil Trapp, Matt Lampson and Alex Crognale playing for the first team out of college and current young players such as Aboubacar Keita, Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhatler on the roster now.
An issue occurs, however, when these players don’t see regular playing time early in their careers while sitting behind veterans. Keita played 21 games over his first two seasons in MLS but had long stretches without game action in both years. Morris and Berhalter combined for 19 MLS games as rookies and just 755 minutes. There have also been a number of draft picks who weren’t quite MLS level early in their careers but couldn’t make it in Columbus because of a lack of opportunity.
The ability for these players to consistently get games when not involved with the first team but still available when needed — read: not on loan to a USL club — will help their growth.
“Unfortunately the guys that don’t play, they’re not getting a game every week like they will once we have that second team, and that’s really important,” Porter said. “We can develop guys in training, our young players are going to improve certainly through the training, but they need that game on the weekend every single week for them to continue to develop, get time, gain confidence. That’s really, really important.”
Imagine if Keita, Morris and Berhalter played each week during their initial professional season(s) and how much further along they would be than just working hard in practice. Even a player like Miguel Berry, Columbus’ 2020 first-round MLS SuperDraft, would benefit more from getting games with Crew II rather than seven games with the San Diego Loyal last year. The same could be said for this year’s SuperDraft picks, Justin Malou or Josh Jackson-Ketchup.
“Even if this player isn’t offered an MLS contract,” Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said of the draft picks in relation to the reserve team, “they could come in and learn for a year or two and then maybe have a little bit more time to develop into an MLS pro.”
A second team also provides an opportunity for players returning from injuries to get game minutes. This is a tool used in soccer leagues around the world and in American sports such as Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League with the minor leagues and the NBA sometimes with the G-League. The Crew could send a recovering player to the reserve team to play 45-50 minutes in a competitive game with Crew II as he rebuilds his fitness after time off.
As for when the Black & Gold expects a reserve team to begin play, the club is committed to fielding a team in 2021, as previously reported. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing negotiations between the league and the MLS Players’ Association on a Collective Bargaining Agreement have complicated matters.
“So a little bit fluid and in the works, obviously like our whole league right now a little bit,” Porter said when asked about a timeline for this second team. “So I’ll have probably more information on that as we go once everything gets a little bit more concrete. But we’re hoping to have that this year. Whether that’s May, April, June, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Massive Report has learned that it’s unlikely MLS announces a reserve league for 2021 — probably a plan for next year — but that does not mean something run by the interested teams could not be put together this season. If that comes to fruition, the Crew plans on taking part.
Assuming a return to normalcy in MLS, Crew II will be coming to a field near your as soon as possible, allowing the club to take that final step for players to achieve their dreams with the first team.
“We’re hoping, and I think the league believes in this and I certainly believe in it, this will be a league that guys can develop and it’ll be a great bridge from our Academy to the first team,” Onstad said. “It’s a big jump as we saw with even Aidan, Sebastian, Bouba. They’ve had their ups and downs and these are big moments. But instead, once they break into the first team, maybe they fall out of favor a little bit, can we quickly get them into the (reserve) games? Rather than sitting on the bench and now just going through training for two months and not getting games. So it’s a big piece to the puzzle I think in our development project.”