In 2018, the Columbus Crew advanced one round fewer than they had in 2017 and suffered a much worse defeat in their eventual elimination. And yet, optimism and hope were to be found in far greater abundance at the end of 2018 than in the previous season.
That’s because in 2017, the MLS postseason was accompanied by news the Crew were on the verge of being relocated to Austin. By the end of 2018, the Crew had new ownership and a commitment to the city of Columbus.
The Crew have been saved, but there’s more change in the organization than just ownership from Anthony Precourt to the Haslam and Edwards families. Longtime coach Gregg Berhalter left the club to take up the role of United States national team boss with Caleb Porter filling the void left behind.
And the former Portland Timbers and University of Akron coach finds a team that has an established core with the likes of Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain and Harrison Afful, along with a reborn Gyasi Zardes, but also has not made much in the way of big-name additions this winter.
Will Porter be able to unlock a new level for this Columbus squad? Or will it be another struggle to fight for the MLS postseason?
A jubilant fanbase awaits, knowing that whatever the answer, they’ll get to find out with their local club, rather than watching them from afar in Austin.
How did the Columbus Crew perform in 2018?
2018 finish: Fifth in the Eastern Conference (14-11-9), lost in Eastern Conference semifinal
The Crew finished level on points and wins with D.C. United in fourth but ended up fifth due to goal difference. It made no difference as they bounced D.C. on penalties in the knockout round.
A 1-0 victory at home in the Eastern Conference semifinal first leg provided hope of an upset against the Supporters’ Shield winning New York Red Bulls, but the Crew were eliminated from the postseason after suffering a heavy 3-0 defeat in Harrison.
Columbus Crew’s key offseason losses
The biggest change comes at the top, where Gregg Berhalter finally put an end to months of speculation at the end of the season and became the head coach of the USMNT.
Zack Steffen signed with Manchester City in January, and though he currently remains with the Crew to start the season, he is expected to depart in the summer.
While he did not leave the club, left-back Milton Valenzuela tore his ACL in preseason and has been lost for the year – a tough loss given how well he performed in his debut campaign.
Cristian Martinez had been in the mix for a starting spot in previous campaigns but never could hold down a place in the XI. His contract option was declined. So too were the options on Mike Grella and Adam Jahn.
Columbus Crew’s key offseason additions
With Berhalter departing, former Portland Timbers and University of Akron head coach Caleb Porter steps in with knowledge of the area and plenty MLS success under his belt. It was Porter’s Timbers who defeated Berhalter’s Crew in the 2015 MLS Cup final.
Steffen’s impending departure leaves a potential hole in goal, and Joe Bendik, who was brought in from Orlando City, could be in a position to fill it.
Robinho Barbosa arrives from Brazilian club Ceara and the 24-year-old will be looking to compete for playing time on the wings – a source of consternation for the team at times.
Veteran Waylon Francis is back with the Crew and tasked with a difficult job of filling some of the void left behind by Valenzuela’s injury while new homegrown signing Aboubacar Keita will add further depth to the back line.
First-round draft pick JJ Williams may provide numbers behind Zardes.
Full Columbus Crew roster entering 2019 season
Goalkeepers: Joe Bendik, Jon Kempin, Zack Steffen
Defenders: Lalas Abubakar, Harrison Afful, Waylon Francis, Aboubacar Keita, Connor Maloney, Jonathan Mensah, Gaston Sauro, Milton Valenzuela, Josh Williams
Midfielders: Luis Argudo, Ricardo Clark, Artur, Niko Hansen, Federico Higuain, Hector Jimenez, Justin Meram, Pedro Santos, Robinho, Eduardo Sosa, Wil Trapp
Forwards: Patrick Mullins, Edward Opoku, JJ Williams, Gyasi Zardes
Columbus Crew’s projected starting lineup
Former coach Berhalter tended to favor a 4-2-3-1 with the Crew though he did sometimes go with three at the back or a 4-4-2.
New coach Porter proved himself versatile in Portland, but with the club’s key players back and well-established, tweaks to philosophy may be more likely than to formation.
Steffen will remain in goal until he departs for Europe, while a backline of Afful, Mensah, Abubakar and Francis seems likely. Sauro could end up being preferred to Abubakar.
Trapp will take one of the central midfield slots and if Porter elects to go with two deep midfielders, will likely play alongside Artur. Federico Higuain will be expected to be the team’s primary playmaker, as he has been for years.
Zardes will start up top, though him being joined by Patrick Mullins depends on if Porter wants a second forward.
The wing spots offer the greatest question, with Robinho added to a mix that includes Pedro Santos, Justin Meram and Niko Hansen. Should Porter not like his options out wide, he could elect to play a formation that pushes Afful further forward, or opt for a more narrow formation.
Columbus Crew’s national TV coverage
- Columbus Crew vs. New England Revolution - Saturday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
- FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew - Sunday, August 25 at 8 p.m. ET on FS1