Photo by Daniel Herlensky

Winds of Change

When Kei Kamara was traded last May after an ugly on-field spat with Federico Higuaín, an already cloudy start to the season turned downright dark and stormy.

A year prior, with Kamara the darling of the MLS, the Crew were en route to a second-place finish in the conference and a trip to the title match.

In 2016 overall, Columbus dropped from second to ninth in the East—a 17-point freefall—and looked positively toothless in the majority of its matches.

The issues, it seemed, were mostly defense and goalkeeping. The Crew surrendered the second-most goals in all of Major League Soccer last season (58), many coming even after the team seemed to have built insurmountable leads.

Gone from that back four are aging former captain Michael Parkhurst (shipped to Atlanta for cash), Corey Ashe (now a free agent), and Tyson Wahl (retired)—all of whom are now in their 30s.

The back gets younger, faster, and bigger with a number of key additions.

First is Jukka Raitala, a 28-year-old fixture on Finland’s national team who will take over at left back. Ghanaian Jonathan Mensah (known commonly as Jonathan) also brings a wealth of talent and experience, having notched 57 caps as a center back for Ghana. He is the Crew’s second designated player, alongside Higuaín. 6-foot-5 defender Alex Crognale is one of the team’s newest homegrown players. The Gahanna native is coming off a senior season at the University of Maryland that earned him both Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and First-Team All-American honors.

Exactly how these pieces fit in with incumbents Nicolai Næss and Harrison Afful remains to be seen, but expect to see a lot of this trio.

As for keeper, Steve Clark had been a mainstay in goal for three years, but his play had waned over his tenure, and his gaffe in the 2015 MLS Cup was hard to forget. His option was declined, and both parties have moved on.

In his place remain two options: the young and talented Zack Steffen (who has shined with the USMNT U-18, U-20, and U-23 squads), and the more experienced Brad Stuver. Early reports have seen neither player separate himself, so this remains one of the more compelling position battles heading into 2017.

In the midfield, the Crew add two key components: Artur, a very young (20) and highly-decorated Brazilian who can play all over the field, and Mohammed Abu, another member of the Ghana national team who, at just 25, already has seven years of senior professional experience. Each will play alongside star defensive mid Wil Trapp.

Of course, Higuaín is still here, along with leading goal scorer Ola Kamara, electric wing Justin Meram, and USMNT member Ethan Finlay.

The team has talent, and the issues (for the most part) seem to have been addressed. Now it’s up to Head Coach and Sporting Director Gregg Berhalter to guide the team back to the top of the table after his first losing season as manager.

When Columbus was eliminated from playoff contention with two games still on the slate, Berhalter knew the disappointment felt by all, but the team’s play leading up to and including that elimination game on the road in Chicago should give fans some hope. In that five-game stretch, with three games on the road, the Crew were 3-1-1 with a +5 goal differential.

Many voices, both internally and externally, decried the team’s effort—or lack thereof—at many critical points during the 2016 season. Effort leads to chemistry, chemistry leads to anticipation, anticipation leads to goals, and goals lead to wins.

A continued focus on youth and energy in this franchise has expectations running high again. Expect the Crew to bounce back under Berhalter this year and make another run in the playoffs.

The 2017 Columbus Crew SC season begins at home at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 4 against the Chicago Fire.