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State of the Crew: Pre-preseason

The Black & Gold are almost set to begin the preseason. So where do things stand with the team?

Minnesota United FC v Columbus Crew SC Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The Columbus Crew is nearly three months removed from capturing the team’s second MLS Cup title. And while the night of Dec. 5 will forever be etched into the minds of players, staff and fans, the 2021 season is fast approaching with preseason set to get underway this week.

Over the offseason, the Crew staff has worked diligently to put together a team that can not only once again contend for the MLS Cup but also compete on multiple fronts, something the team didn’t have to do a year ago. The Black & Gold have their sights set on making runs, and hopefully winning, in the CONCACAF Champions League, which begins in April, and, assuming they are selected to be in it, the U.S. Open Cup, as well as pushing to take home the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to MLS’s best team in the regular season.

In order to be able to contend in multiple competitions, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, technical director Pat Onstad and head coach Caleb Porter wanted to add quality depth that allows for competition in practice and rotation without a noticeable drop off when needed on game day. While the offseason is not over and there are still moves to be made, the Crew staff has been successful, at least on paper, at doing just that.

While my colleague Patrick Guldan has looked at the state of the roster in terms of construction and finances throughout the offseason, the State of the Crew will look at how these pieces fit together and how this team is shaping up. We will come back to this at least once before the 2021 season begins when the roster is more complete and evaluate the state of the team throughout the year.

Adding obvious quality depth

This was the biggest focus this offseason. As I’ve previously noted, the Black & Gold took advantage of the new free agency rules this year to address most of the team’s major needs from within MLS. The signings of forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and winger Kevin Molino grabbed fans’ attention, but additions of midfielder Perry Kitchen and goalkeeper Evan Bush were also important.

Looking back, Wright-Phillips could be the addition of the offseason for the Crew, and maybe all of MLS, because of the depth he provides. While forward Gyasi Zardes has 44 goals in his three seasons in Columbus, he has never had a reliable backup that allows him time off. Zardes has played in 82 of 91 possible games since joining the Crew in 2018, starting all but one, which is a lot to ask of one player. Throw in the rigors of Champions League and Open Cup this year and you’re risking either burning out the striker or having less firepower on the field in one competition.

The addition of Wright-Phillips adds a proven forward to the roster who Porter will be comfortable starting and/or bringing off the bench — Zardes often plays 90 minutes because there’s no one to come in for him — to help rest the U.S. Men’s National Team forward at times. It means that if the Black & Gold have a three-in-eight stretch or an early-round Open Cup game, Zardes can sit out without much fall off.

And while Wright-Phillips is 35 and is not the same player he was when he scored 20-plus goals for the New York Red Bulls in 2014 and 2016, that’s alright. The Crew doesn’t need that Wright-Phillips. They need the guy who played 18 games for LAFC last year, starting 14, and scored eight goals and had six assists. By comparison, Zardes’ backups in Columbus the last three seasons have a combined three goals so Wright-Phillips should be a major upgrade.

If Wright-Phillips isn’t the signing of the offseason, it may be Molino. The former Minnesota United attacker brings talent and versatility to the Columbus offense. He can play any of the three attacking midfield positions in the Black & Gold’s 4-2-3-1 formation and play all of those well. His preference of playing on the right will allow Pedro Santos to play on his more effective left side and create an ideal attack for the Crew.

Molino also can fill in at the No. 10 spot if starter Lucas Zelarayan is unavailable. Last year, Zelarayan missed seven games and either Santos or Darlington Nagbe had to step into that void. This meant those players were not in their normal roles, weakening the Columbus midfield overall. In 2021, Molino will be able to play that position if needed and the Crew can play Derrick Etienne Jr. or Luis Diaz on the wing and maintain a high level.

Additionally, Molino brings an offensive prowess to the winger position that only Santos can replicate. Having scored at least seven goals and registering a minimum of eight assists twice in his MLS career, Molino will give the Crew statistical production, something Santos gives as well. And when the team needs to rotate, the backup options are two players who have proven to be useful starters on an MLS Cup team in the past.

Other additions

While Wright-Phillips and Molino will get most of the attention, and for good reason, they are not the only important moves the Crew made this offseason. I mentioned Kitchen and Bush above and these two could prove critical to success, especially when match congestion becomes a thing in 2021.

I’ve previously addressed the concern that the signing of Kitchen means the Black & Gold aren’t happy with one of either central midfielders Aidan Morris or Sebastian Berhalter or that his addition means that one or both of the second-year players won’t see enough minutes this year. Let those fears rest. The team likes both Morris and Berhalter and has a plan.

What Kitchen provides is depth and experience for when he has to step into the heart of the Columbus midfield. He can pair with Morris or Berhalter so that the Crew doesn’t have two inexperienced players on the field when there’s a need to rotate.

While he doesn’t have the ball-retention ability of Darlington Nagbe or the range of Artur, Kitchen does add a bite to this midfield that it has lacked in recent years. And while the “enforcer position” — think Danny O’Rourke for longtime Crew fans — isn’t as much of a thing as it once was, having a player who isn’t afraid to commit a foul and take a card or mix things up from time to time, but do so in a smart, veteran way, can be useful.

Speaking of useful, do Crew fans remember how useful it was to have a quality backup goalkeeper last season? While Eloy Room is a very good starter in MLS, he missed six games in the regular season and two in the postseason. Andrew Tarbell stepped in and kept the defensive ship afloat in Room’s absence and that’s what Bush can do this year.

Bush returns to his home state after nine MLS seasons played in Canada and the goalkeeper has performed well with 41 career shutouts. Bush’s experience will be beneficial if he is asked to step in, specifically because he’s played in the Champions League previously, including being a finalist for the tournament’s Golden Glove award.

While a team never wants to have to use its backup goalkeeper, and the Black & Gold will hope Room plays more than 74 percent of the games this year, it is good to have a reliable one if needed and the Crew has that yet again in 2021.

Needs to be filled

While Columbus’ roster appears on paper to be rather complete and like a team that can once again contend for championships this season, the Black & Gold can still improve.

The most obvious position that still needs addressing is right back. With Harrison Afful set to turn 35 this summer, the Crew needs a backup at that position. Chris Cadden did not work out in Columbus and the versatile Hector Jimenez was not re-signed. This means there is no natural cover for Afful at right back if the ever-youthful Ghanian either begins to fall off or suffers an injury.

This is not lost on those that make moves for the Black & Gold. Bezbatchenko, Onstad, Porter and company have been aware for a while that a right back is needed before the season begins, ideally one that can contribute this year and be ready to step in in the coming years when Afful can’t play as regularly any longer.

Another position the Crew would like to add, and this one may be more surprising, is in the attacking midfield position. Ideally, Columbus finds a younger player who, similar to Molino and Santos, can play on the wing and at the No. 10 position. Considering Youness Mokhtar and Emmanuel Boateng will not be back with the team in 2021, the depth at winger is not quite what it was last season. Finding a player who can operate comfortably at any of those three attacking midfield positions, and potentially grow into a larger role in one of them, is what the Black & Gold hope to find before the year begins.

The team also could be active during the season once the summer transfer window opens and, hopefully, scouting is easier to do. This is the European offseason and usually a better time to acquire talent from overseas... a Designated Player, perhaps?