The Columbus Crew announced the team’s postseason roster decisions Wednesday morning, multiple weeks before the November 14 Major League Soccer deadline. The Crew front office, led by president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, chose to exercise the options of eight players: goalkeepers Evan Bush and Brady Scott, defenders Jonathan Mensah and Steven Moreira, midfielders Artur, Darlington Nagbe and Isaiah Parente and winger Luis Diaz, keeping these players under contract with the Black & Gold through the 2023 campaign.
Additionally, Columbus declined the contract options on defender Jalil Anibaba, fullback/winger Pedro Santos, midfielder James Igbekeme and forward Erik Hurtado. Defender/midfielder Marlon Hairston and winger Derrick Etienne Jr. are both out of contract and hit the free agency market this offseason. Bezbatchenko did say there will be ongoing conversations with certain players but seemed to imply that these players are not likely to return to the Crew, with the Black & Gold wanting flexibility for a new manager this offseason.
Let’s look at what these roster decisions mean for Columbus going forward.
There are two names unlikely to return that immediately jump off the page in Santos and Etienne.
Santos has been with the Crew since 2017 and has become part of the fabric of the club over that time. Etienne just completed his third year with the team and is coming off a career year of with nine goals and six assists in 2022. While there are certainly eyebrows raised among Black & Gold fans with these decisions, there is obviously a lot that goes into the decisions to part ways with two players that played 62 total games for Columbus last year and combined for 10 goals and 11 assists.
For Santos, there are two main considerations that Bezbatchenko at least partially recognized in his Wednesday morning press conference. Firstly, Santos is 34 years old, and while age is not the only important factor when making these decisions, it certainly plays a part. The Crew front office has expressed a desire to get younger in the past and this may be part of their thinking with Santos. It is also hard to ask a 34, soon to be 35, year old to be able to get up and down the field as an attacking fullback for the entirety of an MLS season.
In addition, Santos takes up a hefty chunk of the Black & Gold’s wages and Bezbatchenko mentioned that this was primarily a “salary cap decision.” One of the main differences in MLS from other soccer leagues around the world is the salary cap, and being limited to a certain amount a team can spend. With that in mind, not having too much money tied up in an older left back makes sense for a Columbus team looking to improve in many areas and helps create flexibility for the new manager, which Bezbatchenko also mentioned in his press conference.
While Santos has been a key versatile piece for the club the last several years, he is at the point where that versatility is outweighed by his inevitable decline in performance/availability. It’s possible Santos may have another season or two of playing at a level in MLS. But like with Harrison Afful last offseason, the Crew wants to be ahead of the curve and not retain a player who falls at a key position.
If Santos does not receive a significant level of interest around MLS — which is unlikely given what he can offer — or elsewhere, it would not be a surprise, depending on the new manager’s thoughts, to see him make his way back to the Black & Gold later in the offseason, if an appropriate deal can be reached between the player and the club.
As mentioned, Etienne is coming off of a career year in terms of production and is entering free agency for the first time. Bezbatchenko mentioned in his press conference that Columbus and Etienne haven’t seen eye to eye on a deal as contract negotiations began. This likely means that Etienne desires more compensation than the Crew is willing to pay.
While Etienne’s numbers were good, his performances weren’t consistent. Nearly half of his goals came in two matches and he had multiple five-game stretches without producing a goal or an assist. The Black & Gold have been looking to upgrade at winger for a couple of years now and bringing back Etienne at a higher salary number could slow that process further.
Bezbatchenko said that the Columbus front office will continue to speak with all of these players and that “things always change,” but he felt it is necessary to move forward in this direction.
It is also worth noting that the Crew has its goalkeeping core returning in 2023. Starter Eloy Room and Crew 2’s Patrick Schulte are both under contract through 2023, but picked up the options on Bush and Scott, as previously mentioned. It would not be a surprise to see a similar structure between the first team and the reserve team at the goalkeeper position in 2023, with Room and Bush being the primary options at Lower.com Field and Schulte and Scott battling for the job at Historic Crew Stadium.
Another interesting tidbit from these decisions can be found in central midfield. The Black & Gold picking up the options on Artur, Nagbe and Parente mean the team will once again have a relatively crowded central midfield with Aidan Morris and Sean Zawadski completing the group. It’s possible the team looks to move one or multiple of these players once a new manager is in place and can make decisions on the pecking order in central midfield. This could include a loan move.
Postseason roster decisions are always never easy. Unfortunately, this is part of the process of building a team in MLS. It’s important to remember that this is just the start of building the group that will compete for Columbus in 2023 and plenty more will change throughout the offseason.