When the Columbus Crew ended the 2021 Major League Soccer season, failing to make the playoffs a year removed from winning the club’s second MLS Cup, it was stated there were three players that were a priority to bring back: goalkeeper Eloy Room, left back Milton Valenzuela and winger Pedro Santos. Two months later, and a little over a month before the 2022 MLS season starts, two of those players – Room and Santos – have been re-signed.
Valenzuela, however, remains out of contract with the Crew and has not signed with another club. As Massive Report previously reported, the Argentine 23 year old and his representatives were in discussions on a new deal throughout this past season but no agreement came. The Black & Gold have continued conversations with Valenzuela and, according to the Crew, the ball is in his court.
“It’s in Milton’s camp right now,” Columbus president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said on Tuesday. “There’s an opportunity for him to return and we are regularly communicating with them. I think I’ll leave it at that. The door is not shut for him but it’s his decision to make, let’s just put it that way.”
Valenzuela initially joined the Crew in 2018 on loan from his local club Newell’s Old Boys. Following a season where the then-19 year old made 30 appearances, 29 starts, and scored one goal and registered six assists in MLS, former Black & Gold sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter made the deal permanent, purchasing the young Argentine defender.
Prior to the 2019 campaign, Valenzuela tore his ACL and missed the season. He returned in 2020 to help head coach Caleb Porter and Columbus return to the playoffs and win MLS Cup, making 19 appearances, 17 starts, and recording three assists.
Last year, Valenzuela again battled injuries, playing in just 14 games, 12 starts, with no goals or assists.
According to the MLS Players’ Union, Valenzuela made $375,000 in base salary in 2021. Sources tell Massive Report that Valenzuela and his representatives would like to see the player make a move to Europe. At this time, any deal to stay in MLS with the Crew would require a pay raise.
“Ultimately the contract is what it (comes down to),” Porter said on Tuesday. “I think we all know Milton’s a good player. So it has nothing to do with being a good player, it’s just about getting a deal done and a deal that makes sense and sometimes that doesn’t happen. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s not the player’s fault, it’s not the club’s fault. When you have good players, sometimes deals don’t get done.”
Both Bezbatchenko and Porter made it clear that Valenzuela would be welcomed back to Columbus if he chose to re-sign with the team, with the head coach saying the chances of a possible contract agreement are “not completely dead.” When healthy, the Argentine is arguably the best left back in MLS and the Crew was 32-14-20 in games that Valenzuela started the last four seasons.
But deals have to work for both sides and, as it currently stands, Valenzuela isn’t interested in what the Black & Gold are selling.
With the preseason set to begin next week, Columbus has to plan for life without Valenzuela.
“We’re prepared to play the season without him,” Bezbatchenko said. “You have to plan for multiple conditions and one of them right now is we have a player that we’re looking to sign from a depth perspective.”
While the Crew may bring a player in, as Bezbatchenko intimated, the starter at left back, if the season began today, would be Santos. While a winger for much of his career, Santos played in the left back role in 16 of his appearances for the Black & Gold last year while Valenzuela and Waylon Francis were out.
With the addition of Ghanain Yaw Yeboah, as well as the return of Derrick Etienne Jr., Luis Diaz and Alexandru Matan, plus Kevin Molino who will return from a knee injury during the season, the Columbus staff is comfortable playing the 33-year-old Portuguese at left back after he proved capable – and admitted it was his preferred position – last season.
“We’re going to see in preseason, but right now he would be the starting left back if we had to start today,” Bezbatchenko said of Santos. “But we have six weeks or so before our first game and preseason to figure that out and then we’re obviously looking at other players. But Pedro is more than capable.”
There is no doubt the Crew would like to see Valenzuela return and that would alleviate the need to find a player at one of the trickier spots to fill in the sport. But even the positive words from Bezbatchenko and Porter didn’t sound all that positive about the Argentine returning to the Black & Gold.