by OSC Special Edition
February 28, 2017 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
Saying that the 2016 season was a disappointment for Columbus Crew SC would be an understatement. After a trip to the finals in 2015, expectations were high for the club. Instead, Crew SC suffered their worst season to date. Columbus traded their captain in the offseason and let their veteran goaltender walk. Will the radical changes be enough to right the ship and send the club into a deep run in the 2017 playoffs?
Head Coach Gregg Berhalter would like to think so. Most expect him to start the year in a 4-2-3-1. The possibility of a 3-man backline, though, has been floating around.
Tending the net is a battle that is still up in the air. It could go to the 21-year-old American Zack Steffen, who made nine appearances last year with USL affiliate the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Also in contention is the perennial backup, Brad Stuver. Stuver has ben with Crew SC since 2014, but never in a starting position. The greenness here is definitely troubling and cause for concern among Columbus supporters.
The defense started coming together with the addition of Ghanaian DP centerback Jonathan Mensah. The 26-year-old is the veteran of two World Cups for his country. However, his club play is a bit suspect. He only made 15 appearances for Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala in 2016, and before that spent time at Evian in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2.
Joining Mensah could be Nicolai Naess. He joined the team last year in July and looked decent in some starts. Josh Williams is also an option in the middle, but should only really be expected to make spot starts off the bench. Alex Crognale was signed as a homegrown from the University of Maryland, but he might be a year away from contributing meaningful minutes at CB. First round draft pick Lalas Abubakar probably fits this description, as well.
Out wide, Harrison Afful has the starting right back slot locked down. He's one of the league's best at the position. Crew SC's strong possession game allows Afful to power forward without too much worry about getting caught in transition. Finnish left back Jukka Raitala was brought in from the Norwegian Tippeligaen. He's spent time in Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, and will likely battle Waylon Francis for starting minutes.
Columbus is incredibly deep and flexible in the midfield, except at the number 10 spot. When Higuain was out, that was filled by a committee of Dilly Duka, Tony Tchani, Mo Saeid, and others. None of those guys are true number 10s, though. Cristian Martinez may make another step forward there in year two, but he's raw and not quite a true 10.
The number 6 and number 8 slots, Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Abu, new Sao Paolo loanee Artur, and Rodrigo Saravia will all get minutes. Depth by committee should add the flexibility but could cause strain if not everyone is working as a unit.
Ola Kamara leads the forward line. If he can manage 28-30 games in the same form from 2016, should be a league MVP candidate. Adam Jahn and Marshall Hollingsworth are capable backups and could earn first team playing time.
Berhalter has all the pieces to make a team of playoff contention caliber. If he has to tinker with the lineup or there are many injuries, even with Crew SC's depth, the team could falter in the middle of the Eastern pack. However, that is not likely. We're sticking with Columbus Crew SC finishing third in the East, well within the playoffs.