The 2021 offseason proved the Columbus Crew’s mentality going into this important year. As defending MLS Cup champions, management could have easily just stuck with the notion that if the 2020 team was good enough to win last season, big additions aren’t necessary. Instead, president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and others in the backroom staff embraced the mentality to “attack” by adding a whole host of talented additions.
Joining the Crew’s attack this season are two experienced MLS veterans in forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and winger Kevin Molino. Wright-Phillips has scored more than 100 goals in Major League Soccer and was recently named by the league as one of its 25 greatest players. Molino has been in MLS for 10 years and was the leading scorer in last year’s MLS Cup playoffs. The Black & Gold want to build a culture of competing for trophies every year and these additions prove just that.
“It’s nice to bring on some guys that have played in this league for multiple years. Especially a guy like Bradley,” Crew striker Gyasi Zardes said. “I’m looking forward to playing with him and learning a lot from him because he has scored a ton of goals in this league and that’s only going to help our team become much stronger.”
Heading into the season, it seems the strength of this year’s team is depth, which is something head coach Caleb Porter wanted to heighten knowing full well how congested the 2021 season will be. The Crew will compete in the CONCACAF Champions League and possibly the U.S. Open Cup this year. Along with that, multiple players are expected to be departing from the team for international breaks throughout the year.
Depth is a requirement but Columbus has signed players that are talented and experienced enough to be starters in this league. Wright-Phillips, Molino, midfielder Perry Kitchen, outside back Marlon Hairston and goalkeeper Evan Bush have all been regulars at a point in each of their MLS careers. In addition to depth, all these new players offer competition to drive the returning players to improve and play at the highest level every single day.
“You can’t let stagnation keep in,” said Porter. “Having eight new guys brings a little bit of tension to some extent cause there is competition which is good and healthy. It brings an energy because you’ve got new guys that are wanting to learn. I think that helps the returning guys too. It’s a really good energy in the group with a bunch of good guys and talented players.”
Competition can bring unwanted tension but that doesn’t seem to be the case within the Crew camp. Multiple social media updates from players during their time in Chula Vista, California this preseason showed the bonds and camaraderie developing between the Black & Gold players. Goalkeeper Eloy Room’s former position mates Andrew Tarbell and Jon Kempin have moved on with Tarbell heading to Austin FC and Kempin traded to D.C. United. He has already gelled with his new two goalkeeper teammates, Bush and Eric Dick.
“The goalkeepers who joined now Evan and Eric are good guys and also good goalkeepers so I think that’s also good for me to get some competition.” Room said. “We have to work with each other cause we train every day.”
The Crew culture is changing. It’s becoming about attacking trophies, not defending them. In order to do that, management needed to be aggressive with adding starting-caliber players to the roster. Players need to compete and drive each other every day in practice while building relationships. Coaches have to imbue their vision and motivate each player to improve. Columbus is doing exactly that so the team can become the fourth team in MLS history to win back-to-back MLS Cups.
“They are extremely hungry to climb that mountain again,” said Porter.