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The Crew’s biggest storylines heading into 2021 preseason

The Black & Gold are set to begin their journey to defend the MLS Cup

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday morning, the calendar flipped to March, which means the Columbus Crew 2021 preseason is officially upon us. Fresh off winning the 2020 MLS Cup last December, it is now time to begin the process of defending that title.

The Black & Gold players and coaches returned to Columbus last week with physicals and medical evaluations taking place over the weekend. The team’s first training session will be on Wednesday in Chula Vista, California. From there, it’s off and running in order to be ready for the first official game of 2021 on Thursday, April 8 against Real Esteli in the CONCACAF Champions League.

With preseason about to shift into high gear, Massive Report takes a look at the biggest storylines for the Crew heading into camp.

What will happen at right back?

Harrison Afful played 21 games for the Black & Gold last year and continued to be as mobile up and down the sidelines as ever, but the defender will turn 35 this summer and eventually his legs aren’t going to be able to handle the workload they have in the past. The Crew was thinking about life after Afful when the team brought in Chris Cadden, but that one-year experiment did not work.

The talk all offseason has been about finding a right back who could be Afful’s back up and take over the role in the future. While Columbus certainly spent time looking at options, and still has time to make more additions, the roster is currently devoid of a natural player at that position. While Marlon Hairston will be officially announced as the newest member of the team soon, it’s unclear if he is the answer after playing more central midfield with Minnesota United than the right back role he occupied with the Colorado Rapids.

What Hairston might be able to do is provide the team with depth at the position in case something happens to Afful, or if he needs a break, while Caleb Porter and the coaching staff evaluate the 26 year old and make a decision on how well he fits with the team. Either way, it’s impossible that Afful defies Father Time forever and there needs to be both a long- and short-term solution (and maybe they are the same person) on the roster for when that moment comes.

The center back situation

For the vast majority of last season, it was pretty straight forward who would start for the Crew at center back. MLS Defender of the Year finalist Jonathan Mensah was on the team sheet in ink and Josh Williams became his regular partner when available. But that only happened after offseason signing Vito Wormgoor suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the MLS is Back Tournament last July.

Wormgoor is expected to be fully fit for the start of the season after playing just two games last year and Williams returns in the last year of his contract. Third-year player Aboubacar Keita, who saw action in 11 games in 2020, also remains in the mix and fans are yet to see Grant Lilliard who was acquired from Inter Miami in August.

One might assume that Wormgoor, now healthy, returns to the starting role that he had at the beginning of last season, but Jonathan and Williams formed a very nice partnership that was at the heart of one of MLS’s best defenses in 2020. Does the coaching staff elect to break that up right away? It likely depends on preseason form.

This new-look attack

In 2020, the Crew was in the top half — tied for eighth best — in terms of goals scored with 36 in 23 games played. That, along with the league’s second-best defense, led to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference. But that wasn’t good enough for Columbus.

The Crew went out this offseason and added forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and attacking midfielder/winger Kevin Molino. While he will be 36 years old later this month, Wright-Phillips is one of MLS’s all-time great goal scorers and showed last year with LAFC he is comfortable in the role of a second striker who comes off the bench or rotates in when needed. Molino, when healthy, is one of the league’s better scoring midfielders, who can play anywhere across the Black & Gold’s attacking trio. These two combined for 17 goals and 10 assists a year ago, production Columbus would certainly take again.

What these two also add is a hunger that a defending champion needs. While we would never assume that these Crew players will rest on the laurels of winning one MLS Cup, it’s always hard to climb the mountain again and that’s why repeat champions are rare. But adding in players such as Wright-Phillips and Molino, both guys who are expected to make an impact and have never won an MLS Cup, adds that extra edge that could help make the Black & Gold the first back-to-back champions since 2012.

The Nagbe/Santos effect

Speaking of hungry players, there may not be two hungrier than Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos. While both midfielders were key members of the Crew’s run to the MLS Cup Final, neither was available for the game due to COVID-19 issues. Despite Columbus winning the championship, and both getting to spend time with the Cup, it was not easy for either Nagbe or Santos to sit at home and watch their teammates play in that game last December without them.

This will almost certainly provide both of these two with extra motivation to get back to the MLS Cup Final in 2021. While Nagbe won an MLS Cup both with the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United, last year would have been Santos’ first trip to the final. Having two of the team’s veteran plays who combined for seven goals and nine assists in 37 regular season games last season longing to play in the championship game again after watching their teammates do it a year ago certainly won’t hurt the Black & Gold this season.

Can Zelarayan out-do his debut performance?

What will be remembered of Lucas Zelarayan’s first year in MLS and with the Crew will be the way the season ended. The playmaker scored two goals and had five assists in four postseason games, including taking home the MLS Cup MVP award. But the regular season wasn’t as successful.

Zelarayan still performed well prior to the MLS Cup playoffs and took home the league’s Newcomer of the Year award, but injuries limited the Argentine to just 16 games, with six goals and four assists, third and tied for second respectively on the roster. If Zelarayan can at the very least repeat that level of play over the course of a normal 34-game MLS season, Columbus will be in good shape. If he can build on what he did in his debut year, plus the other attacking talent the team added mentioned above, the Black & Gold could be a very difficult team to stop from scoring in 2021.