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2022 Crew season preview: Attackers

The Black & Gold will need their attackers to be finishers

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The most exciting part of soccer, for most people, is watching goals be scored. While any player can put the ball in the net, those that spend the most time in the attack — specifically the strikers and central attacking midfielders — are the most likely to do so.

In 2022, the Columbus Crew will need its attacking players to be clinical in front of goal. While head coach Caleb Porter doesn’t expect the Crew to be among the highest-scoring teams in Major League Soccer this year, these attackers have to do enough to earn the Black & Gold points to get back to the MLS Cup playoffs.

Let’s take a look at who the 2022 Crew attackers are.

Erik Hurtado

Erik Hurtado joined the Crew via a trade with CF Montreal in July of 2021. Hurtado was brought on in the middle of an especially injury-plagued time in Columbus.

Through his nine appearances for the Black & Gold, Hurtado was unable to record a goal or an assist and struggled to find his footing with the team. The MLS veteran’s contract was declined at the end of the 2021 season but he re-signed with the team following a successful preseason trial.

Hurtado will be the third striker on the depth chart in a system that typically plays with one. Barring another injury-plagued season, it is unlikely that Hurtado will get much playing time. If he can approach five combined goals and assists and push the other strikers in practice, it will have been a successful year.

Miguel Berry

Third-year striker Miguel Berry burst onto the scene last season in the first Hell is Real Derby of 2021 when scoring the match-tying goal to spoil a potential FC Cincinnati win at the team’s brand new stadium. Berry kept the hot hand alive against FC Cincy when Columbus hosted Lower.com Field’s first derby, scoring the match-tying and match-winning goals.

Berry failed to make an appearance for the Crew during his 2020 rookie season, but did score three goals in seven appearances while on loan with the San Diego Loyal that year. After another brief loan to the Loyal in 2021, where he once again scored three goals in seven appearances, Berry returned to the Black & Gold in July in the middle of an injury glut.

When given the opportunity to play, Berry made his mark, scoring eight goals in 18 games (nine starts) and contributing two assists. The young striker finished the season with 0.86 goals scored per 90 minutes played, which was good for a top-five scoring clip among all players who scored more than one goal.

The Crew fanbase will have high expectations for the young attacker in 2022, but it is important to keep his relative inexperience in mind. If Gyasi Zardes is healthy, he will be the starting striker in most one-forward setups. There will be times when Columbus shifts to a two-striker lineup, and where Berry will replace Zardes, and that’s when the young forward must make the most of his opportunities.

A major question for 2022 is whether Berry can duplicate his scoring success from 2021. Berry slightly outpaced his expected goals total (5.75 xG) but not at a level that suggests he was especially lucky. He maximized his talents in 2021 (size, pace and a knack for placing himself in good goal-scoring positions) and should have those at his disposal as well as an extra year of development. Teams will have tape on Berry and Zardes should be available for more games than last season. That said, another 8–10 goal performance would be a massive success for the third-year striker.

Gyasi Zardes

After scoring double digits in goals during each season with the Black & Gold, Zardes had his first sub-10 goal season in a 2021 season filled with a nagging injury and United States Men’s National Team duty.

The two-time MLS Cup winner bagged nine goals in 21 appearances (18 starts) for the Crew and displayed his usual above-average defensive and pressing work. In just over half of a full season played (1,563 of a possible 3,060 minutes), Zardes’ goals per 90 dipped slightly to 0.52, but that is still good for a 17-goal output over the course of a full MLS season.

Despite scoring fewer goals than Columbus fans are accustomed to seeing, Zardes showed why he is one of the best American strikers by tirelessly defending and pressing from the striker spot, and by continuing to show up in goal-scoring positions. Some joke about Zardes’ ability to score off of a random body part but the reality is that he scores those goals because he knows when and where to be in order to put himself into the best position.

The Crew does not play any games during the remaining CONCACAF World Cup qualifying windows or the 2022 Nations League matches, so if Zardes is healthy, he should get a full run of games for the Black & Gold in 2022. If he is able to put up another season with an above 0.5 goals per 90, then Zardes should easily score in double digits and continue his march toward the top of the Black & Gold’s career goal leaderboard.

Lucas Zelarayan

The Crew’s record signing, Lucas Zelarayan, followed up a stellar 2020 MLS Cup debut season with an uneven but successful 2021 season. The Argentine Designated Player played in 32 of 34 matches and lead the team in scoring with 12 goals, doubling his goalscoring output from 2020. Zelarayan scored five of his 12 goals from direct free kicks, leaving him one short of the MLS single season free kick goal record (6 by Sebastian Giovinco in 2017) and tying the Black & Gild’s career free-kick goals record (Federico Higuain also scored 6 career free kick goals).

Columbus’ No. 10 increased his assist total from four in 2020 to seven in 2021, ultimately combining for 19 goals and assists. Zelarayan was tasked with carrying the offensive load for much of 2021 and did so even while the team struggled to earn results.

If he can stay as healthy in 2022 as he did a year ago, Zelarayan should have another season in which he approaches 20 combined goals and assists. The attacker is much more of a goal scorer than he is a creator, but the added offensive firepower of winger Yaw Yeboah and, hopefully, a full season from Zardes could see his assist total creep toward double digits.