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State of the Crew roster: Early January

We take a deep dive into the state of the Black & Gold’s team heading into the 2021 season

MLS: Cup Final-Seattle Sounders FC vs Columbus Crew SC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew ended the 2020 season as MLS Cup champions. The roster is strong, but turnover is constant. The other constant in Major League Soccer, minding the myriad roster compliance rules and salary budget. The salary budget is still shrouded in mystery, but the picture for roster compliance is a little clearer as the league opens up. This is the first look at where the Black & Gold’s roster stands as they approach the season as defending champions.

The team has already made its first moves of the offseason. The Monday after the MLS Cup Final, the Black & Gold executed the contract options on eight players and had an additional 14 players on guaranteed contracts. The team then added veteran goalkeeper Evan Bush via a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps and forward Bradley Wright-Phillips via free agency just before Christmas, as well as selecting goalkeeper Eric Dick in the Re-Entry Draft, but he has yet to be signed.

Here is a look into the Crew’s roster as it stands:

Goalkeepers (4)

On Roster: Evan Bush, Jon Kempin, Matt Lampson, Eloy Room

Departing: Andrew Tarbell (option declined; signed with Austin FC)

TBD: Eric Dick

The Crew goalkeeping corps remains strong as Room had his option picked up. In a season and a half with the team, he’s made 29 regular season appearances and two more in the playoffs. He was a finalist for the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award, finishing third. He will be the starter when healthy.

Bush came in via trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps for $125,000 in General Allocation Money. It’s a homecoming for the 34-year-old goalkeeper who grew up in Lake County, in northeastern Ohio. He’s started 184 games in MLS, including eight with the Whitecaps in 2020, bringing a wealth of experience to the goalkeeping group.

Kempin and Lampson had guaranteed contracts for the 2021 season. Neither made an appearance last season. Lampson was the backup to Tarbell when Room was unavailable.

Dick was a Re-Entry Draft pickup from Sporting Kansas City after his option was declined. He has one MLS appearance and 25 appearances in USL in stints with Swope Park Rangers, Tulsa Roughnecks and Phoenix Rising.

Tarbell’s option was declined as his salary number would have increased significantly and the San Jose Earthquakes were no longer covering a portion of it in 2021.

Defenders (8)

On Roster: Harrison Afful, Chris Cadden, Aboubacar Keita, Grant Lillard, Jonathan Mensah, Milton Valenzuela, Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor

Departing: Hector Jimenez (free agent; signed with Austin FC)

TBD: Waylon Francis (free agent)

All four starters return from one of the strongest defenses in the league in 2020 with the only departures being Jimenez and Francis becoming free agents, though Francis remains unsigned and has said he will return.

The center back position is strong as Jonathan was a Defender of the Year finalist and played every minute of every game during the season. Williams had his option picked up and Keita’s Homegrown contract was guaranteed. Between the two, they made 23 appearances alongside the ironman in Jonathan.

Wormgoor is on the mend from his ankle injury suffered in July. He was expected to be the starter with Jonathan but was limited to two games. Lillard came in a September trade from Inter Miami but failed to make an appearance.

At right back, Afful’s contract option was picked up and he will return for his seventh season in Black & Gold. The Ghanaian turned 34 this past July and had some uneven performances at times before playing strong defense through the playoffs. Cadden’s status up in the air after recent transfer reports appeared. He made nine appearances, including three starts in 2020 but didn’t push Afful for starting minutes.

On the left, Milton Valenzuela made a successful return from his ACL injury, making 19 appearances and tallying three assists. He will be the starter. Francis is a free agent, but reports from Costa Rica have him nearing a return.

Central Midfielders (4)

On Roster: Artur, Sebastian Berhalter, Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe

Departing: Fatai Alashe (option declined)

Central midfielder is another area where the Crew remains strong. Artur and Nagbe were two of the best in in MLS last season. Nagbe is one of the best on-the-ball players in MLS while Artur added more attacking bite to his game with three goals, including one in the playoffs.

Homegrown players Morris and Berhalter return as options off the bench. Both played crucial minutes during the COVID-19-impacted season, but Morris made significant strides down the stretch and had 10 appearances, including two starts. His one playoff appearance was a breakout game in the MLS Cup Final.

The team may be looking to add more depth as Alashe was allowed to leave after his option was declined. He lost his spot in the rotation to Morris down the stretch, but the Crew would like more than four players available as the calendar gets busier in 2021.

Attacking Midfield (4)

On Roster: Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne, Jr.

Departing: Emmanuel Boateng (free agent) and Youness Mokhtar (option declined)

There is a lot of talent in the Crew attacking midfield. Zelarayan is a game-changing player as he showed in the Final. He’s a singular player in the lineup and there is no like-for-like replacement. Zelarayan is the difference-maker on this team.

On the wings, the Crew has two starters returning and a spark off the bench. Santos had another career year at 32. He had his contract option picked up and will again be expected to be an impact attacker on the left or right while backing up Zelarayan in the middle.

Diaz and Etienne shared starting duties on the right in 2020, but Diaz hit a good run of form late in the year and through the playoffs and the team hopes that it continues as he continues to add positional and defensive awareness to his significant offensive talents.

It’s unlikely that Mokhtar and Boateng return to the team in 2021, so the team will look to add a player or two to the attacking corps. It’s unclear if this will be an impact player, a depth addition or both. The Crew can add up to two Designated Players if the team buys down either Zardes or Nagbe with Allocation Money. Spending money on a winger makes sense from a roster composition standpoint.

Forwards (3)

On Roster: Gyasi Zardes, Miguel Berry, Bradley Wright-Phillips (free agent signing)

Departing: Fanendo Adi (out of contract), Jordan Hamilton (option declined), Krisztian Nemeth (option declined)

Zardes led the line most of the season, starting 20 of 23 games and making a substitute appearance in another. He scored 12 goals and added four assists and rounded out his game with his ablity to hold up the ball, solid passing and providing defense from the front. His movement remains excellent a there’s little reason to expect a drop-off with his skillset and age.

The Crew already made changes this offseason by shoring up a weakness in 2020. The Black & Gold added striker depth by bringing in the 35-year-old Wright-Phillips. The veteran has been a consistent goal threat since joining the league in 2013. He was expected to be a depth player for LAFC, but made 19 appearances, including 14 starts, scoring eight goals and adding another six assists. It’s a big upgrade over the backups of 2020.

Berry didn’t appear for the Crew in his rookie season, but made six appearances for the San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship. He scored twice and added two assists in his time in USL. He’s currently the third option behind Zardes and Wright-Phillips.

The team is not currently looking to bring Adi, Hamilton or Nemeth back according to sources.

Roster Holes

  1. Impact left winger. The team doesn’t have a player that prefers to play on the left side on the roster. Santos plays on the left, but prefers to be on the right. At the minimum, the Black & Gold need someone who can spell Santos or, optimally, someone who can push for time in the starting 11. If Columbus is looking to spend Designated Player level money, left wing is the most likely location.
  2. Right back. Afful is 34 and showed signs of slowing down at times during 2020. He wasn’t quite the same two-way player as he was previously. The timeframe to look for another starting right back is rapidly approaching and given the reports around Cadden, it doesn’t look like he’s the guy The Crew could also make a bigger splash, adding a higher-priced allocation-level signing and try to replace the incumbent starting right back immediately. This becomes the team’s top priority if Cadden leaves.
  3. Central midfield depth. The Crew has starters and Morris showed he could push for time when there’s rotation needed, but Columbus needs more players who can fill in during U.S. Open Cup or Champions League competitions. The departed Alashe played 439 minutes that Berhalter and Morris will soak up, but it still leaves the team short if there is an injury.

Roster Composition (23 of 30 slots filled)

The team has 30 slots on the roster, broken into three different groups. The senior roster must have 18 players and may contain up to 20 who make over the senior minimum budget charge, which was $81,375 in 2020. These are the players that count against the Salary Budget.

Roster slots 21 through 30 do not count against the salary budget. The MLS roster rules contain the specifics of who can fill these spots, but typically it’s players who have a budget charge at the senior minimum salary ($81,375 in 2020). It can include players who are “bought down” to that level, including Homegrown players and Generation Adidas Players, who are subsidized through the league’s various mechanisms.

The final roster slots (25-30) are filled with players making the reserve minimum salary ($63,547 in 2020) or Homegrown players subsidized to that level. Additionally, they have to be 24 years or younger. Slots 25-28 can be used for any player making that amount, but slots 29 and 30 are reserved for Homegrown players only.

This section is in significant flux as some of the roster designations are due to change in the new year. Some supplemental players will see contract improvements that may move them to senior status or see their supplemental status shuffle.

Senior Roster (15 of 20 slots filled)

The Crew has significant flexibility on the senior roster. Currently, the team has 15 players on the senior roster in Afful, Bush, Cadden, Artur, Diaz, Jonathan, Nagbe, Room, Santos, Valenzuela, Williams, Wormgoor, Wright-Phillips, Zardes and Zelarayan.

A few notes on the composition of the senior roster. Wormgoor didn’t take up a senior roster spot while he was on the injured list, but will when he’s officially activated. He’s included on the totals above. If Francis re-signs as reported, he would take up a senior roster slot. If Cadden departs, it would free up a senior roster slot.

Six senior players left during the end of year roster moves in Adi, Alashe, Boateng, Jimenez, Mokhtar and Nemeth.

Supplemental Slots: Senior Minimum / 21-24 (4 of 4 filled)

The Crew has three of the senior supplemental spots filled with Etienne, Kempin and Lampson make under the Senior Minimum salary. Lillard was previously on the reserve roster, but is now 25 and has to move to the senior supplemental roster. Etienne’s solid year may earn him performance bonuses or a raise that sends him to the senior roster.

Supplemental Slots: Reserve Minimum / 25-28 + 2 Home Grown slots (4 of 6 filled)

The Crew currently has five players on the reserve supplemental roster, making less than the reserve minimum salary. These players include Homegrowns Keita, Morris and Berhalter. Additionally, Berry is on the reserve supplemental roster.

Designated Players (3)

Gyasi Zardes, Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe

Zardes and Nagbe are both eligible to be brought below the DP threshold via allocation monies. This would give the Crew a chance to sign two additional DPs. Santos already is already below the DP threshold via allocation money.

International Players (6 - 8 open slots)

Zelarayan, Santos, Room, Diaz, Wormgoor, Cadden

There is a little flexibility for the Crew, who has two international roster spots in 2021. Jonathan, Afful, Valenzuela, Artur and Wright-Phillips have green cards and don’t count against the International Players limit.

The team will have the standard eight international slots in 2021. The trades of an international roster slot to Atlanta for Nagbe will expire. The trades for international roster slots from Colorado for Lalas Abubakar and from Inter Miami for Will Trapp expired at the end of 2020.

Homegrown Players (4)

Boubacar Keita, Aidan Morris, Sebastian Berhalter, Grant Lillard

Kieta, Morris and Berhalter remain on Homegrown deals and can be covered by the Homegrown player subsidy. Lillard was signed as a homegrown by the Chicago Fire and is on his original HG contract.