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Massive Report Mailbag: Crew transfers, Zelarayan, Matan, more

We answer your mid-season questions on the Black & Gold.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The international break for the Columbus Crew is nearly over, as the Black & Gold will return to the field on Saturday, welcoming in Major League Soccer expansion side Charlotte FC. Over the break, we asked Crew fans for their questions surrounding the team and we received plenty.

Let’s not waste any more time and get to it.

The major theme of the questions, unsurprisingly, surrounded the Crew’s pursuit of a striker for the summer transfer window. Since the trade of Gyasi Zardes in April, it’s been no secret that the Black & Gold plan to add a Designated Player at the position. It’s about finding the right one.

As Keith points out, there have already been reports about former Houston Dynamo forward Mauro Manotas, who is currently in Liga MX with Club Tijuana. As I’ve previously reported, Manotas is one of multiple targets Columbus has identified and I would say, based on what I’ve been told, he’s not at the top of the list but someone the club believes can come in and score goals. As detailed on this week’s Massive Report podcast, Manotas would be similar to Zardes when he first arrived to the Crew — similar age and goal-scoring background — which would be good but not the signing the team or fans is hoping for.

ESPN’s Taylor Twellman also made Black & Gold Twitter explode on Sunday when he said during halftime of a broadcast that Columbus was in the running for an English Premier League forward. I think there is likely some truth to that, based on what I’ve been told, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if wires got crossed in communication and what Twellman called an EPL forward is a player who either played in the EPL at one point or has connections to a club that did.

While Keith and others have asked for specific names, it’s difficult to give those because the team is looking at multiple options. From my understanding, a long list was whittled down to several names that both general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, head coach Caleb Porter and others involved in the process have agreed on. Those players were ranked and are being pursued.

The issue then becomes actually landing one of those players. Especially with forwards who score goals, other clubs are interested as well. Given the limitations of fiances for the Crew and with the way MLS works, competing against teams with more resources sometimes makes it more difficult to land that top guy or two. But rest assured, Bezbatchenko and company are working hard to get a good player to Columbus and do so quickly.

I’m actually surprised I didn’t see more of this type of question, as I think it’s almost as interesting as the DP striker. As I’ve said before, it would not surprise me if the Black & Gold make more than one move this summer, especially if they don’t land their top targets — the ones that tend to cost more.

If I had to guess, I would say Columbus looks for another impact winger. While Derrick Etienne Jr. has been productive this year, the Crew expected more from this position. And while his last two games have been a step in the right direction, Yaw Yeboah hasn’t been the player the Black & Gold hoped he would be to this point. Getting more consistent production from the wings would ease the burden on the current strikers on the roster and we may not be talking as much about the lack of goals.

As for the depth at the fullback spots, I think the team is fairly comfortable there. The starters — Pedro Santos and Steven Moreira — have arguably been the best duo in the league so far this year. The concern comes when either of those players is hurt but so far Moreira has only missed one game and Santos is yet to miss any — although that could change this weekend as he works his way back from an injury.

With the return of Artur to full health — although he too is dealing with an injury now — and Aidan Morris back, Marlon Hairston is now the No. 2 option at right back. He’s not a perfect replacement for Moreira, but has shown to be serviceable there if needed to step in. On the left, the Crew like Will Sands quite a bit. He’s a young player with very little experience at this level, but you aren’t going to find many reserve left backs that offer a ton more in MLS because left backs are one of the most sought-after positions. Having even an aging Waylon Francis the last three seasons was more of a luxury than the norm.

Also, the Black & Gold believes the play defensively and in the middle of the field has been good enough to be a playoff contender in MLS. That means the attack is what has failed this team — and I think we could all agree with that — and therefore that’s where I expect resources to be used this summer.

I thought this and the last question fit together nicely. Based on my previous answer, yes I could see the team adding an attacking midfielder to help enhance the attack, probably a wide player and not another Lucas Zelarayan. But bringing up Kevin Molino is interesting.

I’ve actually kept as close of tabs as possible on Molino when we are out at practice and he does seem to be making good progress, even warming up with his teammates at times. I was told that he is probably still a little bit away from getting back on the field, but he is expected to be available this summer.

Crew fans didn’t get a good look at what Molino in this team last year as he only played 11 games before suffering the ACL tear that still has him out, but when healthy, he can still be a difference-maker in MLS. Molino was just starting to find his role with this team when he got hurt and is eager to get back on the field.

I do think once he is healthy again, he could act almost as a new signing and bring something that the team doesn’t have to that attacking front four with his abilities.

Based on my quick look at the roster, Columbus has nine players over 30, two of which are goalkeepers. The oldest field players are Josh Williams and Pedro Santos, both of whom have been significant contributors, not just this year but in recent seasons as well. Of the guys who are currently out injured, only Santos is over 30 and he may be the first one back.

There is this outdated perception that 30 years old is some sort of cut off for when athletes can’t play at a high level anymore. With the science we have these days and the way players are able to take care of their bodies, even in MLS, they are playing longer and longer. So I think the idea that these over 30s can’t play professional soccer is antiquated.

To Lydia’s point, however, the Crew believe they are in a window to make a push after winning the MLS Cup in 2020. Clearly that didn’t happen with last season and injuries were certainly a part. So far this year, the older players have been healthy for the most part. Porter and his staff are certainly looking more at players in their prime, but he has mentioned getting younger with the core, something the team attempted to do with offseason additions like Yaw Yeboah and Milos Degenek. These players just have to start producing.

This is an interesting question, as we have seen this become more common in MLS in recent years. Matthew McConaughey, Will Ferrell, Magic Johnson, Patrick Mahomes and James Harden are just a few of the names that are now connected with MLS clubs through some form of investor.

If I had to guess, I would say it’s a long shot for the Crew to add a celebrity owner to the group that already includes the Haslam and Edwards families. For one, I don’t know who has enough of a connection to the city and has an interest in the sport to join that group. A second reason is I’m not sure what adding a celebrity to the ownership group would actually do, as many of these investors just show up and watch games from time to time. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have LeBron James drop into Field throughout the summer, but he has a lot of other things going on and is already a partial investor in Liverpool.

I could be wrong here and someone I’m unaware of with money and connections to the city/club could emerge, but I don’t see it happening.

It has been a strange year and a half for Alexandru Matan in Columbus. After playing a consistent role off the bench to start his Crew career, he’s become an afterthought for most fans, so I’m glad this question came up.

Matan has only played in five games this year and hasn’t been on the field since the U.S. Open Cup loss in mid-April. I know fans quickly say, “why not give him a shot?” but there’s more to it than that. Porter isn’t just handing out opportunities to players; they have to earn them. Matan has not done that.

He played that Open Cup game against a USL side and wasn’t impressive. He has two appearances for Crew 2 in MLS NEXT Pro and while he has an assist in each game, wasn’t the dominant force an MLS-level player should be in a reserve league — Erik Hurtado looked like a man among boys in his one Crew 2 appearance, for example. I also got to see Matan play in a scrimmage against Crew 2 at the start of the international break and again he looked out of sorts.

Whether he has become disinterested after a slow start with the Black & Gold or he’s still having issues adjusting to a new country and new league — Matan couldn’t have his family in the U.S. with him last year due to COVID-19 — I’m not sure. But he’s a player who has had opportunities both in training and in games and hasn’t taken them. Rest assured, Porter would play someone who could provide something different in the attack right now if he felt that player would contribute.

I honestly don’t. I think while Guillermo Barros Schelotto will always be a fan favorite, he is of a very distant generation when it comes to ownership and I doubt Jimmy and Dee Haslam are well aware of him. It would be one thing if he had been overly successful as a manager, but he had just over a 40 percent winning percentage with the LA Galaxy and has one win in eight games in charge of Paraguay.

It’s more likely than not that they look for a coach with a better résumé, even if he is a historic player in the club’s history.

The most recent Zelearayan injury was listed as “thigh.” I’m not sure if it is an extension of the knee injury or not suffered earlier this year, but that would not surprise me. He did not look like the same player to me after he came back following the New York Red Bulls game when the knee injury initially occurred.

It does appear that this international break came at the right time for him and the other injured guys. While it wouldn’t surprise me if Zelarayan missed this weekend’s game against Charlotte, I don’t believe he will be out much longer than that.

This is one I don’t have a good answer to but will try and get to the bottom of. I did see the tweet go out and then couldn’t find it again later. Maybe Josh and Aidan got in a slight argument and weren’t best friends for a hot second?

This was fun. We’ll do it again sometime as the season progresses, so if you have more Crew questions, look out for us to ask for them.