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Should they stay or should they go? What the Crew should do with its 2021 roster

The Black & Gold have roster decisions to make. We made them for them.

FBL-COLUMBUS-CREW-CRUZ-AZUL Photo by JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Columbus Crew’s 2021 season came to an end earlier than many expected and/or hoped heading into the year. Despite winning each of the final three games of the season, the Crew came one point short of returning to the MLS Cup playoffs, less than a year after capturing the team’s second league championship.

With the end of the season comes the offseason and that means decisions must be made on players — who will stay and who will go. While it’s not easy to tell who is under contract and who isn’t in MLS, there are always ways to move a player if a team no longer has a need for his service.

The core of the Black & Gold roster is expected to return in 2022, with Columbus hoping to stay healthy and make another run with a group they still believe in. With that said, let’s take a look at this Crew roster and who should be back with the club next season.

Note: Players are listed in alphabetical order. Contracts are only discussed if that information has been made public.

Saad Abdul-Salaam: In his first season with the Crew, the defender played 18 games, starting seven. Abdul-Salaam was brought in to serve as a backup right back and managed that role, but was never outstanding. He is more defensive than Caleb Porter prefers, so that doesn’t help matters. With that said, if the salary cap number is right, the Black & Gold could do worse than Abdul-Salaam as a backup at either outside back spot and a potential desperation center back.

Harrison Afful: It was clear in 2021 that Afful, 35, started to decline. The Ghanian full back could not get up the field with regularity as he did in his earlier days in Columbus. But if Afful is not counted on to be an every-game player, he also showed he can still bring his flair on the right side at times. Afful still has something to offer the Crew, just in a different role than in his first six seasons with the team.

Sebastian Berhalter: If you forgot Berhalter was on the roster, that’s okay. The second-year central midfielder went on a season-long loan to Austin FC where he played in 18 games, making five starts, registering one assist. Porter said at the beginning of the year that the intent was for Berhalter to get more minutes — something he wasn’t going to see in Columbus — and was still a young prospect the Black & Gold valued. With that said, given the other options in midfield, it would not be a surprise to see Berhalter make the move to Austin permanent this offseason.

Miguel Berry: The biggest surprise and/or bright spot of the 2021 season was Berry. The second-year professional got his chance when the Crew was depleted at forward and took advantage… big time. Eight goals and two assists in 18 games, nine starts, is impressive. Porter said he views Berry as a starter so he will be back next year.

Evan Bush: Brought in to be a backup goalkeeper, Bush served well in that role. At 35, Bush is getting toward the end of his career but is happy back in his home state. While Columbus could go out and find a different backup, it would make sense to keep Bush on board if he wants to continue playing.

Eric Dick: The third-year goalkeeper didn’t see any time this past year but moved up the depth chart when Matt Lampson was released. If the Black & Gold feel Dick made enough development in practice and when on loan with Indy 11 in the USL Championship to be a future backup, keep him. If they didn’t see enough, the MLS SuperDraft is filled with goalkeepers who are looking for an opportunity.

Luis Diaz: After a bright start to his Crew career, where the winger scored two goals and had four assists in 13 games in 2019, Diaz has fallen off the last two years. He had one goal in 19 games in 2021 on 21 shots, only six on target. This one-time budding star has burnt out in Columbus.

Derrick Etienne Jr.: For the first time in his career, Etienne was called upon to be a regular starter for his team. The winger started 21 matches — his previous career-high was nine — and scored one goal and had five assists, tied for third-most on the team. Porter praised Etienne at the end of the year. Expect Etienne to be another important player for the Black & Gold in 2021.

Waylon Francis: The second stint with the Crew did not go as well as the first for Francis. The left back did play 23 times, 14 starts, for Columbus this year, but only because of injuries at the position. Francis, who has a team option, played well past his prime at 31 and the Black & Gold can find another second-string defender.

Liam Fraser: The Canadian central midfielder was acquired on a year-long loan from Toronto FC at the start of the season. He was called on 23 times, making 11 starts, and played well in a deeper role. If the Crew can hang on to Fraser, by acquiring him full time from Toronto for the right price, it would be a good move.

Marlon Hairston: After he was originally brought in as a right back backup to Afful, Hariston ended up playing the vast majority of 21 games at central midfielder. The Black & Gold have an option on Hairston and, given that he started 16 games and performed well, there’s no reason to think they won’t pick that up.

Erik Hurtado: Brought in to add forward depth during an injury crisis, Hurtado never earned much of a place with Columbus. He doesn’t seem to be in Porter’s future plans and given the team has an option on him, it’s unlikely Hurtado returns.

Aboubacar Keita: The young center back has not developed as quickly as many in the organization hoped. He made 16 appearances for the Crew this past year, 10 starts, but was often mistake-prone and fell down the depth chart because of it. But he is a Homegrown player and that still has value, so there’s a good chance Keita returns in 2022.

Perry Kitchen: A season-ending injury in July meant the central midfielder made just five appearances in his first season with the Black & Gold. Kitchen was meant to provide depth, and still potentially could, but there are other central midfielders that should be prioritized.

Grant Lilliard: The center back has yet to play for Columbus since joining in the summer of 2020. He made it through one offseason but it’s tough seeing Lillard making it through a second.

Alexandru Matan: At one point in the season, Matan was the only Crew player to feature in every game, most of them coming off the bench. The winger’s minutes drastically decreased toward the end of the year, though, which possibly indicates Matan’s time in Columbus is coming to an end.

Jonathan Mensah: The captain loves Columbus. There’s no question he will be back next year.

Kevin Molino: The biggest offseason addition for the Crew played just 11 games, making seven starts and scoring one goal. Molino, who was expected to add creativity on the wing and fill at the No. 10, began the season hurt and didn’t make his debut until mid-June. He then tore his ACL in August and was done for the year. Despite all that, Molino will be back with something to prove in 2022.

Steven Moreira: After signing with the club in August, Moreira quickly worked his way into the starting lineup at right back. He is the type of player Porter wants at that position and should be the starter over Afful there next year.

Aidan Morris: The second-year central midfielder didn’t get on the field in MLS play after tearing his ACL in the Champions League. He still is a part of this team’s plans and will be back next season.

Darlington Nagbe: He’s the best central midfielder on the team. He’s Porter’s favorite. More Nagbe in 2022.

Isaiah Parente: The Homegrown rookie made only six appearances in 2021, two starts. He has growing to do, but Parente will do it with the Crew.

Eloy Room: The team’s starting goalkeeper, who started 30 games with seven shutouts, is out of contract but would like to remain with the Black & Gold. The Black & Gold would like him back as Porter called him one of the best goalkeepers in MLS. A deal should be reached soon.

Pedro Santos: The Portuguese winger said he was under contract in 2022. While Santos didn’t have his best season, just four goals and six assists, he played multiple positions for Columbus and looked much more like himself at the end of the year.

Milton Valenzuela: Like Room, Valenzuela said he was out of contract. Also like Room, Porter said he wanted to bring back Valenzuela. It was clear that the Crew was a better team when Valenzuela was at left back. Another deal that should get done.

Josh Williams: The center back and fan favorite once again proved his worth in 2021, specifically with how the team struggled defensively when he was out with an injury. The team has an option on Williams and despite being 33, he is too valuable to lose.

Vito Wormgoor: After recovering from an injury suffered last year, the Dutch center back played in 17 games, starting 16. While he was brought in prior to 2020 to partner Jonathan, Wormgoor is the third center back for this team. He likely will be back unless the Black & Gold find an alternative.

Bradley Wright-Phillips: The plan when Columbus acquired Wright-Phillips was for him to serve as the backup at forward. But when his opportunities initially came, he was out injured. Wright-Phillips never got going with the team. At 36, he seems unlikely to be in the Crew’s plans going forward.

Gyasi Zardes: Despite Porter saying he sees Berry as a starter, Zardes remains a focal point for the Black & Gold attack when healthy. What he does up top with his movement and pressing and defensive work is invaluable for Columbus, not to mention his scoring, and will continue to be next season.

Lucas Zelarayan: He is the team MVP once again in 2021. The Crew is already working on getting Zelarayan a new deal after his second season with the club.

Artur: It was certainly not the year the Brazilian central midfielder hoped for with just six appearances due to a hip injury. He spent much of the season recovering from surgery and should be ready to run the midfield for the Black & Gold in 2022.The Columbus Crew’s 2021 season came to an end earlier than many expected and/or hoped heading into the year. Despite winning each of the final three games of the season, the Crew came one point short of returning to the MLS Cup playoffs, less than a year after capturing the team’s second league championship.