The Columbus Crew roster looks to be nearly complete, at least to start the 2021 season. The Black & Gold announced on Monday the signing of 21-year-old attacking midfielder Alexandru Matan from Romanian club FC Viitorul Constanta. Matan is a player who has been linked with Major League Soccer for some time and most recently with the Crew.
Columbus reportedly shelled out $1.8 million to land Matan, an impressive fee for a young player. This, combined with the other moves this offseason, likely means the Black & Gold are done adding pieces for this transfer window.
“I think our roster is set,” head coach Caleb Porter said last week. “Does it mean we’re not going to still add players? We’re always looking. We’re always looking to add and enhance and it depends a little bit on what we see in these early games.”
But what does the addition of Matan mean for the Crew going forward and how does the player fit within the group this year and in the future?
To begin with, Matan gives the club another attacking option to use in rotation. Early on in his Black & Gold career, Matan will likely serve as the primary backup Lucas Zelarayan in the No. 10 role. This could be important as last season, Zelarayan played in just 16 of the team’s 23 games and often had to sit out of practices due to various injuries.
While Columbus hopes for a healthier Zelearayan in the MLS Cup MVP’s second season with the team, it’s good to have a reliable backup in case nagging injuries and missed time are things the Crew has to accept along with the Argentine’s talent. Last year when Zelarayan was out, it was generally Pedro Santos who slid over from his winger role to play as the central attacking midfielder. While this worked well, it did leave the Black & Gold with less talent on the wings.
Once Matan is settled in MLS, he will be able to step in and play that No. 10 role without having to move pieces around. While Matan, still a young player, may not be a like-for-like replacement for Zelarayan, he is familiar with the position and will grow into the role while allowing Santos to remain in his preferred and more natural spot.
Additionally, Matan’s technical skill and ability to go 1 v. 1 means he can play on the wings as well. While the Crew added talent at these positions — to go along with Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. — this offseason by signing former Minnesota United attacker Kevin Molino, who can also play as a No. 10 if necessary, having yet another piece of the puzzle to play with will make Porter and his staff’s lives a bit more fun this year.
It’s also notable that Diaz, Etienne and Molino could all miss time this season on international duty, especially this summer during the Gold Cup. This would leave the Crew pretty thin on the wings without a player like Matan to step in.
Looking down the road, Matan is a potential successor to Santos, assuming the Romanian fits in Columbus. Although Santos continues to perform well for the Black & Gold — six goals and eight assists in 22 games last year — he will be 33 shortly after the new season begins and the Crew is already thinking about life after Santos is no longer able to produce at the same level as consistently.
This brings us around to the final part of the Matan deal for Columbus: youth. At the time of this writing, the average age of the Black & Gold roster is just over 27 years old, the oldest in MLS. While that isn’t old for a team, especially one in the middle of a championship window, it also isn’t young. Add in that several key players — Santos, Molino, Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Darlington Nagbe, Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor, Bradley Wright-Phillips — are all 30 or older, and it becomes clear that adding some younger players who can start to make an impact — along with the likes of Diaz, Milton Valenzuela, Aidan Morris and Aboubacar Keita — is necessary.
The hope is Matan can join that group as part of the team’s youth movement moving forward.
“We’re still looking for some young, exciting players,” Porter said. “We feel like we love our group and the blend of youth and experience, but I think we recognize, Pat (Onstad), myself and Tim (Bezbatchenko), that making sure we have some young guys that will address a little bit the succession plan for the future. We have a pretty experienced team, which is good. But also we need to make sure that we stay good in the future and have enough youth and that right blend.”
The Crew enters the season hoping to play a lot of games in a number of different competitions in 2021. The Black & Gold not only set out to defend their MLS Cup title, but also would like to become the first American team to win the CONCACAF Champions League. The U.S. Open Cup returns after a one-year hiatus and Porter and his staff are also aware Columbus hasn’t won a Supporters’ Shield since 2009.
In order to be at its best on all fronts, the team needs a deep squad capable of rotating players without seeing much, if any, drop off. A player like Matan, who is young and exciting and can also operate in multiple roles, helps add to the depth and makes the Crew more equipped to accomplish its goals this season.