The 2020 Major League Soccer season ended in glory. But 2021 wasn’t quite the same for the Columbus Crew. The Black & Gold failed to repeat as champions last year, after lifting their second MLS Cup the season prior.
Columbus finished 2021 with a 13-13-8 record, missing the postseason by one point. Given the declared ambition of an ownership group that took over ahead of the 2019 season – another campaign without the playoffs – there was an expectation among the fanbase that this offseason would see major changes.
That, thus far, has not been the case. Heading into preseason, which began this week, the Crew has made one signing outside of MLS, winger Yaw Yeboah for roughly $1.6 million. Other than that, the Black & Gold have re-signed players from last year’s squad – important ones in Pedro Santos and Eloy Room, to be fair – and added a depth piece in 33-year-old free agent center back Jalil Anibaba, a third-string goalkeeper in Brady Scott, a couple of Homegrown pieces and multiple MLS SuperDraft picks.
Because head coach Caleb Porter and others in prominent positions within the club stated that the goal is to consistently win championships, it’s hard to call it unfair that supporters are not impressed with this offseason to this point. Those same people in charge, however, would tell the fans that the group returning, along with the additions thus far, are not far off from competing once again for an MLS Cup title.
“I think our most significant improvement is going to come from staying healthy,” president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said last week. “We have a team that won MLS Cup two years ago and what we did was add to that last year with players like Kevin Molino, and obviously he got injured. But the idea is if we’re healthy, we should be very competitive.”
There is a thought among the Crew’s hierarchy that the core group that won the MLS Cup in 2020 is capable of doing it again. The likes of Room, Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, Darlington Nagbe, Artur, Santos, Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes all remain from that championship team and, as Bezbatchenko pointed out, there have been additions made to strengthen the squad.
That view is enhanced, despite the disappointment of missing a second postseason in three years under the current leadership, by a lengthy injury list in 2021 that saw nearly all of the above players miss time. In the opinion of the Black & Gold, this core group is still capable of success in MLS. It’s just a matter of having them all on the field together for the vast majority of the season.
“Obviously at the end of the year, you saw that we were in form,” Porter said of the conclusion to 2021. “We were playing well, we were winning, we were confident and we were healthy. We were 7-2-2, won the last three games. Sometimes you forget, it’s offseason and then you look at the bottom line and you go, ‘They need to blow the team up.’ Well, we ended really well. We showed that we were in the form that we were in when we won MLS Cup. So we’re not going to blow up the core.”
Despite being the oldest teams in MLS in 2021, the belief within the Crew front office is that this team can run it back a year removed from a title. Bezbatchenko and Porter look at the roster and believe this group can still compete at the highest level.
“From a macro sense, we’re obviously coming off a year where we were very disappointed in the finish,” Bezbatchenko said. “We made a good push at the end, ended really strong, missed out on the playoffs by a point and felt like we had a roster that was deserving and if we had made the playoffs, we could have made a run. At the end of the day, we have to get stronger, we need to stay healthier, get a little bit younger, a little bit more dynamic… We had a competitive roster last year but we just faced too many injuries.”
This is not to say the Black & Gold roster has remained the same this offseason. The most notable addition has come on the wing – where the Columbus staff believed needed more quality – in the addition of Yeboah. The Crew has also added Anibab, first-round draft picks Patrick Schulte and Phil Quinton, as well as adding midfielder Sean Zawadzki and defender Jake Morris.
Additionally, Columbus allowed 11 players from the 2021 roster to depart this offseason.
The Black & Gold are not done making moves this offseason either. The Crew remains in the market for a backup left back to replace Milton Valenzuela – as Santos is expected to slot back into the starting spot – and a deal could come from one of the targets in the coming weeks. Sources tell Massive report that there have been conversations with Real Zaragoza for a loan deal for winger James Igbekeme as well.
There remain MLS free agents that could sign with a club looking to get back to the top. Trades within MLS are also an option. Other moves are also a possibility.
“We’re going to have four or five more guys added. We’ll be in good shape,” Porter said during the SuperDraft. “But we kept the core and if you look at it, we also didn’t keep nine or 10 guys. It’s not like we kept the exact same roster as last year. There were nine or 10 guys we decided we were going to move on from, which allows us, when it’s all said and done, we’ll probably be adding nine or 10 guys.
“There are other additions we’re looking at, other positions. I don’t want to speak too much because today’s about the draft but there will be other positions. We have roster spots open and we have cap flexibility and quietly we’ve been preparing to make moves and you’ll see some triggers pulled in the next couple of weeks.”
From an outside perspective, it may look like it has been a slow offseason for Columbus. This is not an unfair assessment if you believe the Crew needed major changes this offseason, as most additions have been with a hopeful eye to the future.
But the Black & Gold’s perspective is that this team can still compete in MLS and get Columbus where it wants to be in 2022.
“This roster doesn’t need wholesale changes,” Bezbatchenko said. “So we brought in Yaw. We’re looking at more players that can be starters. We have some Homegrown signings that we’re looking to finish over the next week, so we’re excited about those players. What I would say is, it’s more about refocusing our team. We’ll always look to improve in every position, but I don’t think wholesale changes are needed.”