The 2023 Columbus Crew season is just over a week away. The Black & Gold have been hard at work in preseason over the last month and a half to get ready for the new year and will open against the last season’s Supporters’ Shield winners, the Philadelphia Union, on the road on Feb. 25.
As we continue to look ahead to the new year, we wanted to give Columbus fans new and old players to look out for in 2023. Some of these may be more obvious to those who are familiar with the team, but take this as a baseline of Crew players you need to know heading into the new year.
The 23-year-old Colombian forward is arguably one of the best players in Major League Soccer and has already surpassed expectations since his $10 million move to the Black & Gold from English Premier League side Watford FC in July 2022. In his debut MLS season, Hernandez showed up in important moments. He didn’t waste any time, scoring the game-winner on his debut against the Chicago Fire and becoming the first MLS player to score four goals in his first 90 minutes of play, which he accomplished in three substitute appearances. Expect Hernandez to build on this in his first full MLS season, which could see him compete to finish as the top scorer in the league this year.
Although Morris is one of Columbus’ younger players, he has proven his pedigree within the side and cemented his spot in the starting 11. The 21-year-old Homegrown midfielder developed his talents while playing for the Crew Academy from 2017-19. He played one season at the collegiate level with Indiana University, in which he was named TopDrawerSoccer.com’s National Freshman of the Year, before returning to the Crew to push for a role within the first team. Morris enters the season with something to prove, having recently received his first cap for the U.S. Mens National team in a friendly against Serbia. He will look to improve on his stellar 2022 breakout season in which he started in 20 of the 27 matches in which he appeared.
Although Ramirez is a new signing this offseason for the Black & Gold, he is no stranger to MLS. The 31-year-old forward scored 35 goals and assisted 10 times in 105 career MLS appearances, having plied his trade for Minnesota United, LAFC and the Houston Dynamo. In addition to his experience playing in the U.S., Ramirez joins Columbus following a 1.5-year-long stint with Scottish Premiership side Aberdeen, where he scored 10 goals and had four assists in 41 appearances. Ramirez will be a welcome addition to a Crew team that looks to bolster its attack this season to push for a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs.
As Crew 2 became the winners of the inaugural season of MLS NEXT Pro, Russell-Rowe became the league’s first breakout star. The 20-year-old Canadian forward finished the season as the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Most Valuable Player, was named to the MLS NEXT Pro Best XI and took home the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot award after scoring a league-high 21 goals. During last season, the Black & Gold traded $50,000 in General Allocation Money to acquire Russell-Rowe’s homegrown rights from Toronto FC, signing him to a first-team contract. In his first start, Russell-Rowe recorded two assists against his former side. With six first-team appearances to his name, Russell-Rowe will hope to work his way into a bigger role in 2023 while competing with some of the more experienced strikers on the team.
Coming off of a World Cup run with Australia this offseason, in which the Socceroos beat Euro 2020 semifinalists Denmark and narrowly lost out to eventual World Cup champions Argentina in the Round of 16, Degenek returns to Columbus having competed against some of the best players in the world. Of course, defending against the likes of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe is no easy feat, but Degenek and the Australian national team held their own and proved many doubters wrong. Since returning, the center back has said his time at the World Cup as an older player in a young Australian team allowed him to recognize his own leadership qualities, which he hopes to bring back to the Crew this season.
Although Sands has yet to cement himself in the Crew first team, the versatile 22-year-old defender gained valuable experience in his rookie season. Although he most commonly plays as a left back, Sands has also plied his trade as a winger and a forward. Sands spent three years playing for Georgetown University, with whom he won the national championship in his freshman season in 2019. With Pedro Santos heading to D.C. United this offseason, Sands’ cover on the left flank will prove to be a valuable asset. He’ll aim to make the most of the minutes he receives.
The 24 year old is comfortable on either side of midfield and has only gotten better since joining the Black & Gold in 2019 as a Young Designated Player. Díaz has scored six goals and recorded 13 assists in 51 MLS starts and especially showed his ability once Henerandez arrived last summer. With several attack-minded players leaving the Crew within the last season, including Santos, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Gyasi Zardes, there is room for a player like Díaz to seize his opportunity. In addition to his time spent in MLS, Díaz also has eight caps for the Costa Rican national team.
The Crew’s 30-year-old DP midfielder needs no introduction. The Armenian international made himself known in dazzling fashion in the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs, in which he scored twice and recorded five assists in four games to help the Black & Gold take home their second MLS Cup and was named the MLS Cup 2020 MVP in the process. In 2021, Zelarayán was named to the MLS All-Star team that went on to beat the Liga MX All-Stars 3-2 in penalties. In his time with the Crew, Zelarayán has proven to be pivotal to the attack, scoring 28 goals and providing 23 assists in 77 games. There is no doubt the Columbus No. 10 will once again be a key player, but it remains to be seen if he can top his 10 goals and 12 assists from the 2022 MLS season, or if he will need to.