The talk surrounding the Columbus Crew in the team’s final weekend off from Major League Soccer regular season is what will this team look like in a few weeks. Head coach Caleb Porter’s been up front since the April 22 trade of forward Gyasi Zardes that the Crew needs to make moves to strengthen the team’s offensive attack once the secondary transfer window opens in July.
The striker position goes beyond a single summer signing. It’s a situation that even with a new signing has layers. Let’s dive into those layers.
A Designated Player signing will impact the role the most, obviously. The Columbus front office’s plan to spend big on one player is only done with the idea that that player is a game-changer.
The Crew has identified multiple players that could fit this description and is working on deals with Porter saying this week there are “a lot of irons in the fire.”
“We’ve identified and feel comfortable with a handful of targets,” said Porter. “We have them numbered and ordered in terms of who we like the best on down. But as is the case many times in these situations, the deals don’t get done because other teams come in or the money ultimately that another club offers is higher.”
The iron most recently discussed is forward Mauro Manotas. Currently, with Club Tijuana in Mexico’s Liga MX, Manotas is a player confirmed by sources close to the situation as one of the options as a striker signing this offseason, but other targets remain as well.
Other names floated by media outlets are Norwegian forward Erik Botheim and Argentine Gustavo Del Prete. Botheim played with club Krasnador in Russia before getting out of his contract due to the Russian-invoked war in Ukraine. Del Prete’s also been linked with Pumas UNAM in Mexico.
While reports aren’t always accurate in transfer speculation, these three seem to be among the “irons in the fire” to which Porter referred, while others are also burning with a deal likely a couple of weeks away from being completed.
While signing a DP striker is important, the Crew needs a player who can enter a match when a goal is needed and deliver. That’s mostly down to two in forwards Miguel Berry and Erik Hurtado.
Both strikers joined the Black & Gold's first team in 2021, with vastly different levels of success. Berry returned to Columbus after a loan to USL’s San Diego Loyal and made an immediate impact, scoring eight goals and registering two assists last year. That play propelled him to the starting role entering 2022 over Zardes but the performances didn’t follow the promotion. In 13 matches played, Berry has two goals and no assists.
Hurtado is the inverse of that story. After playing almost 300 minutes with the Black & Gold in 2021, Hurtado didn’t have a goal or assist to his name and his contract wasn’t renewed in the offseason. After auditioning in the preseason and getting back on the team, Hurtado has two goals in four appearances, with one start.
While these two remain in a battle to start for the next few matches at least, there is also the competition to be the primary backup for whoever is brought in this summer.
“Current form and performance for me is everything,” said Porter. “Guys that have earned it get a leash but then eventually, the leash gets shorter and shorter. That’s ultimately why we played Erik because we just felt like in his minutes that he had gotten he had shown pretty well.”
Both Berry and Hurtado have a history of scoring impact goals in pressure situations over the last year. Will it be Berry or Hurtado that enters in behind the new striker? Situation dictates but at this point in the season, Hurtado is in the lead in the clutch goals department.
A less discussed element of the No. 9 role is the future of the position. Columbus’ goal is signing a DP striker in his prime but there’s youth to leverage in Crew 2, the Black & Gold’s MLS NEXT Pro development league team.
Forward Jacen Russell-Rowe, a Canadian youth international, MLS NEXT Player of the Month for May and former member of the Toronto FC organization, has nine goals in 10 appearances with Crew 2. Thursday night, Russell-Rowe scored two of those 10 in a 5-0 rout of Inter Miami II.
That doesn’t mean Russell-Rowe is by any means in the hunt for a starting role on the senior team. It just means the focus of Porter and the Crew front office needs to include integrating talent from Crew 2 into the first team if the player proves he is ready for the MLS level. An MLS NEXT Pro player can only be loaned to the first team four times throughout a season and can play twice, so Porter has to be selective on when to bring up someone like Russell-Rowe, or elect to sign him to a first-team contract.
Should Russell-Rowe’s performances continue, adding him to the senior roster pushes not only himself but Berry and Hurtado.
On July 7, the summer transfer window opens, and the Black & Gold should have one layer of this discussion clear in a new signing around that time. Once that’s finished, what the position looks like below the DP level is an interesting story to watch for the Crew.