There has been plenty of discussion during the 2022 Major League Soccer season involving the Columbus Crew’s forward play. Just five of the Crew’s 13 goals this year have come from the striker position and head coach Caleb Porter has made it no secret that the team needs an upgrade in the attack.
But a month remains between now and when a new forward can step on the field for the Black & Gold. Columbus has at least four games prior to a new striker playing and, ideally, helping to light an attacking fire.
While all the talk of a potential new No. 9 up top is great, the Crew has to make due with what the team has for a little while longer.
What it has is third-year forward Miguel Berry and 10-year veteran Erik Hurtado, with the possibility of Crew 2 striker Jacen Russell-Rowe mixing in. Between these two first-team players is 31 career MLS goals, only four of which have come in 2022.
Despite the presence of Designated Player Gyasi Zardes, who was eventually traded to the Colorado Rapids in late April, Berry began this season as the Crew’s starting forward. While he scored in the opening game of the year, Berry was far off the pace of his eight-goal breakout season in 2021, struggling to live up to being the Black & Gold’s go-to source for goals.
Despite starting the vast majority of games for Columbus, Berry went nine matches without scoring, four of which ended in defeat.
“I kinda sense there’s a little bit of pressure building on Miguel,” Porter told Massive Report last week. “That’s natural and normal. He knows we have a guy coming. We move obviously Gyasi to open up a spot for a guy coming. He knows he’s going to basically get a run of games and then it’s not coming for him and you can just tell that he’s feeling pressure. His confidence was a little down. And for me, as a striker, confidence is everything. You can’t score goals unless you’re confident.”
After playing in just four games a year ago, following a mid-season trade from CF Montreal, Hurtado didn’t feature for the Crew in MLS play over the first two months of the season, spanning nine games. When he did finally make his 2022 MLS debut, Hurtado scored the late equalizing goal in a six-minute cameo against the New England Revolution.
Since that game, one in which Berry also got his only other goal this year, Hurtado has featured in each match, coming off the bench in two before starting the 2-1 win at Atlanta United prior to the international break.
“I think with Erik, he was showing confidence,” Porter explained. “He was showing that he should be in and that’s what we want to see out of guys that aren’t playing. And ultimately we want a culture where the guys that aren’t playing push to eventually play. And if you’re happy not playing or you don’t perform when you’re not playing then you’re never going to get in. And we need guys that are breathing down the neck of the guys playing and that’s what Erik did. And ultimately Erik won the job.”
Adding a wrinkle to things is Russell-Rowe. The Crew 2 forward leads his team and is tied for second in MLS NEXT Pro with seven goals in nine games, seven starts, and was the league’s Player of the Month in May. He was sent on a short-term loan to the first team for the game in Atlanta before returning to score in Crew 2’s 4-2 comeback win against Chicago Fire II last Saturday.
Russell-Rowe certainly has the confidence that Porter alluded to needing from a striker. While he is doing it at a lower level – and MLS NEXT Pro is certainly a step or two below the play in MLS – he has a nose for goal that makes him an intriguing option should Porter need a player other than Berry or Hurtado.
“The other guy that’s coming on, I do have to mention, is Jacen Russell-Rowe,” Porter said last week. “We brought him into training today, had another very good day today. That’s why we dressed him. So that wasn’t just a charade, smoke and mirrors, let’s just act like Crew 2 matters. We’re really looking at those guys and we have the ability to loan these guys up four times and play them twice out of the four. So we know there’s still three or four more games until we get a striker, so can he play a role? Can he push even Miguel and Erik?”
With a striker signing on the horizon, Porter now has important short-term decisions to make until that player arrives and can take the field. Largely due to a lack of goals scored, the Crew sits in ninth place in the Eastern Conference through 16 games played, two points below the playoff line and 10 back of conference leaders New York City FC. The Black & Gold cannot wait another month to turn things around after just two wins in their last 10 matches.
This means Columbus needs goals and those goals need to more frequently come from the forward position.
In Berry, Porter has a player still coming into his own at the MLS level – although he pointed out Berry, who turns 25 this year, is not young – and one with potential the club believes in. He is more of a true No. 9 than Hurtado who likes to run in behind defenses and use his strength and pace to be dangerous.
The Crew used Hurtado’s abilities to great effect in the win on the road against United in the team’s last match, with him scoring a goal from a direct ball out of the back from winger Derrick Etienne Jr. While this varies from Porter’s more traditional possession style of play, counter attacking and using Hurtado’s skills worked to get an important win and could be the path forward over the next month.
“Erik because we just felt like in his minutes he had gotten, he had shown pretty well,” Porter said. “Obviously he scored a goal at New England and then in training he was playing extremely well. And it obviously suited the game with the transition and how we wanted to play also in the match. I’m a big believer in rewarding guys for sure for performing. And if guys aren’t performing, why would you play a guy that’s not performing?”
This does not, however, mean Berry’s time leading the line for the Black & Gold is done. If Columbus is healthy and wants to play its possession style, especially at home, Berry certainly could still have a role.
As seen a year ago, there are goals in Berry at this level and while he’s a more marked man in 2022 than he was as an unknown a year ago, the belief is he can still score in MLS. But he needs to do it more consistently to be on the field.
“He’s got to score goals. It’s that simple,” Porter said of Berry winning back his starting spot. “He’s had a long run of games. We’ve shown a lot of faith in him. We gave him a lot of time and he just wasn’t scoring goals. So he’s got to score goals. He’s a good kid.”
Given the dynamics between MLS and MLS NEXT Pro, the Crew could only use Russell-Rowe a couple of more times this year on short-term loans. But there is always the possibility to sign him to the first team on a full-time basis. But with a Designated Player striker coming in soon, Russell-Rowe likely would have to beat out Berry or Hurtado for a roster spot.
For at least the next month, the Black & Gold must find ways to get results before adding what they hope will be the final piece to the puzzle in a forward. Porter will continue to do what he believes is best for the team, but it will be up to Berry and Hurtado – and potentially a little Russell-Rowe sprinkled in – to find the necessary goals.