The Columbus Crew has a plan when entering any transfer window and often that plan has been in place for some time. The Black & Gold backroom staff, consisting of general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, technical director Pat Onstad, director of scouting Neil McGuiness, head coach Caleb Porter and others, often think well ahead of the pressing needs and into the future.
“Our process that we go through is very comprehensive,” Porter said last week when discussing incoming transfers.
“We’re always looking to improve, whether it’s after winning a trophy or whether it’s we feel like we need to flip the cycle of the time. Whether it’s a year from now or three years from now, we’re going to have to keep improving in every window. Certainly, in some windows, you’re going to need more than others but we’re never just looking at the short term, we’re looking at the long term. So we’re always projecting in each position where we’re at in the short term but also where we’re going to be down the road long term.”
Last offseason, the Crew’s focus was on improving in the short term, continuing a change in the team that began during Porter’s first year in charge when the group struggled and missed the playoffs. Included in the offseason moves was the acquisition of playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, a necessity after electing to part ways with longtime No. 10 Federico Higuain. A club-record fee was spent on the Argentine and he was an instant success, winning MLS’s Newcomer of the Year award and leading Columbus to its second MLS Cup title as the championship game’s MVP.
But like with all transfers, Zelarayan was not the Crew’s only target at the No. 10 position. There were multiple players the club scouted and discussed among their brain trust. Did the team need an experienced player — Zelarayan was 27 at the time of the move — in the crucial role? Would the Black & Gold rather bring in a younger player at the position to develop — and potentially, down the line, sell for a profit — into a star?
In the end, it was $8 million well spent on Zelarayan, but the discussions on the future of the position — just like all positions within the team — didn’t stop just because a deal was done.
Moving ahead to this offseason, the Black & Gold didn’t want to settle with just one championship. As has been discussed since transactions began, this team wants to be able to compete on multiple fronts and for multiple trophies this season — MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, CONCACAF Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup — and the requires experience in depth.
Free agent signings Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino, Perry Kitchen and Marlon Hairston, as well as a trade for goalkeeper Evan Bush, were all examples of addressing the depth. But the thought of a young playmaker never left the Crew’s collective minds.
With the March 8 announcement of Alexandru Matan joining the Black & Gold from Romanian side FC Viitorul Constanta for $1.8 million, Bezbatchenko, Porter and company got the type of player that was discussed heading into the last offseason.
“We felt like where our group was at that we needed a young, exciting player that could cover us in the No. 10 when everybody’s healthy,” Porter said, “which we don’t have a natural cover for Lucas and we prefer to not have to move guys out of their current positions, whether that’s Darlington or whether that’s Pedro. Every day we play basically two groups of 10 and if we’re going to execute our system, be able to rotate and play in the way that we want to play every game, we need to have a No. 10 that can kind of help us and execute.”
According to Porter, he was first made aware of Matan five or six months ago, but the Crew has been following the 21 year old longer. With this addition, it was a matter of not only finding the right player that fits with the team but also the right time to make a move for a young No. 10.
Matan made sense. Once he joins the group — Porter hopes in the next couple of weeks after paperwork gets done — he will have to quarantine and then it’s about getting him up to speed. He will work with Zelarayan and can learn from the Argentinean while helping provide depth at the position that was not there a year ago.
“I love that the club continues to add good players to the squad,” Zelarayan said last week. “It’s always nice to have as many quality players on the roster as possible. He (Matan)’s a young player but we can tell he’s got huge potential and if I can help him develop it, I’d love to do it and try and share any advice I might have with him.”
In addition, Matan can help in other attacking areas as well. The Crew has already seen winger Luis Diaz called up to the Costa Rican team for Olympic qualifying and Molino and Derrick Etienne could join their respective national teams at points throughout the season. Matan can help provide cover on the wings, capable of playing either on the left or right, while also being available if Zelarayan is out or needs a rest.
The Black & Gold’s decision to sign Zelarayan last offseason was clearly the right one, but it didn’t close the door on adding a younger attacking midfielder in the near future. As the oldest team in MLS, Columbus continues to look to the future to make sure the team stays competitive each and every year.
Matan is an example of the Crew’s overall transfer strategy working for the best of the club.
“He was a guy that popped up,” Porter said of Matan, “and was presented and obviously all of us, in going through our process of checking the boxes, agreed that he would be a good fit for us.”