There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the Crew's early success
After six weeks of MLS play, Columbus Crew SC is in first place with 10 points and a 3-2-1 record. They haven't always looked like a first-place team, and no fewer than eight clubs have games in hand with potential to equal or surpass Columbus. But there are reasons to be optimistic about the Crew's strong start.
First, it managed to hold onto first place after losing in Chicago last weekend because the team built itself a decent cushion in the season's early going. After spending most of last season struggling to make up lost ground, a little room for error must be refreshing.
Another positive sign: Columbus is the only team to beat Portland, which leads the West with a league-best 13 points, and Orlando, second place in the East with an impressive nine points in four matches. One of the best indicators of a good team is the ability to defeat other good teams.
On an individual level, the Crew's investment in Justin Meram — who signed a hefty contract extension last month — is already paying off. Meram has logged three goals and two assists and has been a consistently dangerous presence on the left wing.
He's not alone among attacking achievers. Ola Kamara also has three goals. Ethan Finlay has his mojo back. Artur has played with exciting ambition. Niko Hansen scored the game-winner against Portland in his first MLS game.
Then there's Federico Higuain. To understand his impact, just look at how electric Columbus appeared during its three-game winning strike compared to the stymied attack last weekend when Higuain was hurt.
Fortunately for Columbus, Higuain is expected back Saturday against Toronto FC. And if Coach Gregg Berhalter finally deploys speedy striker Kekuta Manneh — recently acquired in a trade for Tony Tchani — he'll have a wealth of attackers to choose from.
Bigger questions remain on defense. Pricey center back Jonathan Mensah has not significantly differentiated himself from backup Alex Crognale. Highly touted goalkeeper Zack Steffen has committed some rookie mistakes, like last weekend when a saveable shot bounced off him to become Chicago's game-winner. Other goals resulted from everyone standing around looking confused.
But these defenders are mostly new teammates who've all shown flashes of promise. They have a long season to get on the same page. If they do, the Crew's grip on first place might not remain so tenuous.