2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
Entering the 2016 MLS campaign, the Columbus Crew had the look of a sure-fire contender. Gregg Berhalter's side was fresh off a run to the MLS Cup final. The club returned all 11 starters, including MVP finalist Kei Kamara. And some well-regarded offseason signings bolstered the team's depth.
But there are no sure things in the parity-driven world of MLS. An ugly on-the-field squabble between Kamara and playmaker Federico Higuain prompted an abrupt trade that sent the striker to New England. Injuries kept Gaston Sauro and Higuain out for long stretches. Some key players regressed while others failed to tap into their potential.
It was a perfect storm of hurdles that proved too much for the Crew to overcome. So how does Columbus plan to get back on track? The attack — spearheaded by 2016 bright spot Ola Kamara — looks familiar. Yet only Orlando City conceded more goals than the Crew last season, so newly acquired Ghana international Jonathan Mensah has arrived to anchor a retooled back line.
In resisting a top-to-bottom overhaul, the Crew have banked on this group's ability to recapture the magic of 2015. Whether that's the right call in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference remains to be seen.
How did the Columbus Crew perform in 2016?
2016 finish: Eighth in Eastern Conference (8-14-12), missed the playoffs
The Crew opened 2016 with a five-game winless run, and ended up with just three victories out of their first 22 matches. Ola Kamara scored 16 goals in 20 starts to help Columbus make a late push, but it was too little, too late, as the club failed to make the postseason.
Columbus Crew's key offseason losses
Changes in the back seemed inevitable after the Crew struggled defensively throughout 2016, with two stalwarts of the Berhalter era moving on: captain Michael Parkhurst and goalkeeper Steve Clark.
The Crew also parted ways with several role players who showed flashes of potential but lacked consistency, including left back Corey Ashe, central midfielder Mohammed Saeid and winger Cedrick Mabwati. Veteran backups Tyson Wahl and Conor Casey also called it a career.
Columbus Crew's key offseason additions
Ghana center back Jonathan Mensah is the headliner, having departed Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala to sign a designated player contract. He'll lead the way for a new-look defense, which also features summer acquisition Nicolai Naess.
The Crew bolstered their depth in the back by signing 6-foot-5 Maryland product Alex Crognale as a homegrown player, picking Dayton center back Lalas Abubakar fifth overall in the MLS draft, adding Finnish left back Jukka Raitala and reacquiring veteran defender Josh Williams.
And Columbus bolstered its options in the middle, adding defensive midfielder Mohammed Abu and box-to-box midfielder Artur.
How will the Columbus Crew starting lineup look in 2017?
With Clark gone, the Crew have a competition in goal between longtime backup Brad Stuver and U.S. youth international Zack Steffen, who arrived from German club Freiburg last summer. Although Mensah and Naess look like the first-choice pairing in the central defense, Naess also can play in defensive midfield — potentially opening the door for Crognale, Abubakar or Williams to earn minutes at center back.
While Harrison Afful looks locked in at right back, Waylon Francis will battle Raitala for the left back spot. Out of favor for stretches last season, Tony Tchani is the incumbent in central midfield alongside Trapp. But don't be surprised if Naess, Abu and Artur end up filling that role at times.
From there, matters get simpler — Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay remain dangerous on the flanks, with Dilly Duka, Hector Jimenez and Cristian Martinez providing depth. And Higuain will pull the strings underneath Kamara, who is backed up by Adam Jahn.
Full Columbus Crew roster entering the 2017 season
Goalkeepers: Logan Ketterer, Zack Steffen, Brad Stuver
Defenders: Lalas Abubakar, Harrison Afful, Alex Crognale, Waylon Francis, Jonathan Mensah, Nicolai Naess, Jukka Raitala, Gaston Sauro, Josh Williams
Midfielders: Artur, Mohammed Abu, Dilly Duka, Ethan Finlay, Niko Hansen, Federico Higuain, Hector Jimenez, Cristian Martinez, Justin Meram, Abuchi Obinwa, Rodrigo Saravia, Ben Swanson, Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp
Forwards: Marshall Hollingsworth, Adam Jahn, Ola Kamara, Connor Maloney
Columbus Crew's national TV coverage schedule
Orlando City vs. Columbus Crew - Saturday, April 1, at 4 p.m. ET on UniMas
Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew - Saturday, April 15, at 8 p.m. ET on TSN
Columbus Crew vs. Toronto FC - Wednesday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. ET on TSN
Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew - Friday, May 26, at 7 p.m. ET on TSN
Columbus Crew vs. Sporting Kansas City - Sunday, Sept. 10, at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Columbus Crew - Saturday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. ET on TSN