FC Cincinnati made the splash of the 2021 Major League Soccer offseason this week with the signing of Brazilian forward Brenner from São Paulo, a move that set a franchise record, reportedly a $13 million transfer fee, and is believed to be the third-highest paid in MLS history. Meanwhile, two hours north, the Columbus Crew, Cincinnati’s rival, is yet to make an international signing since winning the club’s second MLS Cup in December.
That’s not to say the Crew hasn’t been busy this offseason. On the contrary. The Black & Gold have made some key acquisitions over the last two months since raising the trophy, two of which shocked many around MLS. The additions of forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and winger Kevin Molino, in conjunction with a few other moves, make Columbus a favorite, if not the favorite, to repeat as MLS Cup champions in 2021.
But it’s been a different offseason and, to this point, the Crew has handled the acquisition of players a bit differently. Instead of making big, expensive international signings so far, the team brought in MLS free agents like Wright-Phillips and Molino, as well as veteran central midfielder Perry Kitchen, to supplement an already talented roster.
Additionally, the Black & Gold traded for goalkeeper Evan Bush, who has nine years of MLS experience, taken another shot stopper who will enter his third year in the league in Eric Dick, signed Wake Forest midfielder Isaiah Parente to a Homegrown contract and made two MLS SuperDraft selections. The common thread here is a lack of international players coming to Columbus in 2021, something that has been the norm for the club during transfer windows.
There are multiple reasons for this approach, which wasn’t a hard-set plan but worked out well.
The first is a change in MLS rules. This year, for the first time, teams in the league aren’t limited to signing only two free agents per season, as has been the case in the past. This means the Crew didn’t have to be selective about who they approached on the MLS open market.
“Some of the best players are internationals, but they come with a risk. Ideally, the first place actually you would look would be in the league,” Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said of signing players last month. “With the change of the rule, I think it really opened up the door for us to acquire a handful of some of the best players in the league that are proven starters that can add depth on our team and competition in the roster.”
The advantage of adding MLS players to the team is that they are already familiar with the league. They understand the rigors of the schedule, the travel, the different environments across MLS because they’ve lived it. Wright-Phillips, Molino and Kitchens went through the league’s COVID-19 protocols last year with LAFC, Minnesota United and the LA Galaxy respectively and none of those — which will continue to at least start the new MLS season — will be a surprise.
Bezbatchenko, technical director Pat Onstad and the rest of the coaching staff are also familiar with these players. They’ve seen them play in MLS and gone against them. In Kitchen’s case, the midfielder played for head coach Caleb Porter at Akron in 2010.
“It’s comfort level, guys we’ve seen up front, up close,” Onstad explained. “I think every Crew fan will be sick and tired of watching Bradley Wright-Phillips against the Crew. But Kevin Molino we know very well, obviously in our league. So I think we felt comfortable making a pitch for those guys.”
Given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Crew’s scouts, along with Bezbatchenko, Onstad and Porter, were not able to see players from outside the league in-person, as they have in the past years. This meant taking more of a chance when signing players internationally due to a lack of familiarity.
The rule change was part of the reason the Black & Gold were able to sign quality MLS free agents but not the only reason. Players still have to agree to terms with teams and, fortunately, the Crew was a team that sparked a lot of interest among players this offseason.
“We’re excited that they chose Columbus,” Onstad said of the free agents the team signed. “I know we kind of joke that that’s Lucas (Zelarayan)’s line but at the same token, we’re now becoming a destination team. These are free agents that I don’t think in the past would necessarily want to come but we’ve got a new facility, a new stadium, we won a championship. We have a very good team, I think a team that’s poised to go and win another trophy. So I think it was a very easy sell for these guys.”
Being able to land top free agents meant there wasn’t a need for the Crew to go out and splash the cash on international players. Plus the Black & Gold already did that in building recent rosters, meaning there was less urgency to do so again.
Columbus made a big investment just last summer in Zelarayan, a record signing, who went on to be named the MLS Cup MVP. The Black & Gold have also added key international players in recent years, such as Luis Diaz, Eloy Room and Vito Wormgoor who remain on the roster.
This isn’t to say the Crew won’t make any international signings this offseason. In fact, it would be a surprise if there wasn’t at least one overseas player added to help fill out the roster prior to the start of the MLS regular season in April. But the ability to add quality pieces without having to go international during a year that featured COVID limitations was a benefit to Columbus.
While major international signings may steal the headlines, the Black & Gold believe in this offseason’s strategy thus far, taking everything into account, and that they have built a team that will once again contend for titles in 2021.
“We need youth, we need experience, we need a blend,” Porter said. “We need some Americans, we need some internationals. And I think, when you look at our roster, we have really good depth at every position and a good blend of youth and experience and a good blend of international and domestic players.”