Columbus Crew 2017 Review
On the field, 2017 served as a bounce back year for Columbus. They made a return to the playoffs after missing it the year before, finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference. But they didn’t just get there. The Black and Gold made some noise, upsetting Atlanta United in the knockout round then proceeding to do the same against New York City FC in the conference semifinals. And despite falling 1-0 on aggregate in the East final, they gave eventual MLS Cup champion Toronto FC all they could handle. All of it came as a welcome escape for their fans in the wake of the club’s uncertain future in Ohio’s capital city.
Every off-season brings departures and new arrivals. The two most high profile players whose time in Columbus is at an end are Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. Kamara left for the LA Galaxy in exchange for Gyasi Zardes and $400,000 in allocation money. And Meram, who was the club’s longest-tenured player, departed for Orlando City with Columbus receiving over $1 million in allocation money in the deal. Left back Jukka Raitala also will not return as LAFC took him in the expansion draft then promptly flipped him to the Montreal Impact.
On the signing front, two players stand out. The club first brought in Eduardo Sosa from Venezuelan club Zamora as a depth piece behind veteran number 10 Federico Higuain. But their biggest move of the off-season came when they signed Argentinian left back Milton Valenzuela to a young designated player deal.
Expected/Predicted Starting XI Picture
The Crew have primarily come out in a 4-2-3-1 shape under Gregg Berhalter who will be entering his fifth year as club manager. At times, that led to criticism about him being too tactically inflexible and, by extension, predictable. But things changed in 2017 when Berhalter became the latest MLS manager to experiment with a three-man back line. Regardless of the actual formation, the club’s style of play is possession-oriented and highly attack-minded. It involves overlapping fullbacks contributing to the attack, wingers creating their own havoc from wide areas, a lone point striker consistently finding space and getting in behind opposing back lines and Higuain pulling the strings with quality chance creation.
Another staple of the Berhalter tactical ethos is the inclusion of technically gifted players in the defensive midfield. They boast that in spades with Wil Trapp and Artur, the latter of whom joined the club on a permanent basis after being on loan from Sao Paulo in Brazil last year. Both excel at providing that connective tissue presence in linking defense and attack. Trapp is more of a deep-lying regista kind of player than a pure midfield destroyer while Artur functions as a box-to-box engine.
Where this club’s style of play becomes a bit of a double-edged sword is in the defensive third, particularly centrally. Sending so many numbers forward in attack tends to leave them vulnerable to counterattacks. And opposing teams have benefited from absorbing pressure and subsequently trying to hit them in transition. All in all, remaining solid in defense is a challenge given Berhalter’s tactical philosophy. But when it happens, Columbus is one of the hardest teams to beat in the league.
Closing Fantasy Thoughts & 2018 Expectations
Last year, this team came within an aggregate win from hosting MLS Cup for the second time in three seasons. Considering they’ve parted ways with their two top scorers from 2017 in the off-season, they’ll be hard-pressed to replicate such a run. Zardes is a shell of the player who looked to be the future of the USMNT at striker just a few years back. And though Higuain is coming off one of his best seasons in a Black and Gold uniform, he’s not getting any younger.
From a fantasy standpoint, goalkeeper Zack Steffen is a good bet. He finished last season tied with Seattle’s Stefan Frei for most fantasy points among players at the position. Valenzuela could represent early season value, especially if he turns out to be the next Joevin Jones or Justin Morrow. Assuming he can stay healthy, Higuain should give you consistent points on a week-to-week basis, especially if he gets a favorable matchup.
Assuming Berhalter goes out and signs a replacement for Meram and said replacement produces, this is a team that can remain playoff relevant. But the Eastern Conference is as competitive as ever and as such it will be an immense challenge to do so.