With Columbus eliminated from playoff contention, let's assess the future

In hindsight, it was the only appropriate way for the 2019 Crew’s postseason hopes to be snuffed out: Leading 1-0 and seemingly about to pull off their second consecutive road win Saturday in Vancouver, Columbus conceded a tying goal at the absolute last minute. Fredy Montero’s equalizer in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time effectively extinguished the Crew’s 2019 campaign — the final gut punch in a season of disappointments.

Despite Saturday's debacle in Western Canada, the math still allowed for the possibility of a miracle, but the New England Revolution's draw Wednesday pushed the seventh and final Eastern Conference playoff spot out of the Crew's reach. Even if Columbus wins its final two matches, the team will officially miss the postseason for the first time since 2016.

I’m not discouraging you from attending Sunday’s home finale against Philadelphia. In fact, I encourage it because Sunday evening Crew games are delightful, especially in the fall. But practically speaking, this Crew squad is a vegetable.

So where does the franchise stand going forward? Certainly Tuesday’s unveiling of futuristic renderings for a new Arena District stadium bodes well for the organization’s future as a business entity and a foundational element of this city’s culture — more on that two weeks from now when the Crew breaks ground on said facility — but what about the team itself? What’s working, and what needs to change?

The Crew season might be ending soon, but you can continue to receive Alive all year long: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Goalkeepers: There’s really no replacing a talent like Zack Steffen, but Columbus found a quality successor for the USMNT starter with Curaçao product Eloy Room. As long as he stays healthy, the Crew’s goalkeeping situation will be in good shape, too.

Defenders: As for the guys playing out front of Room, they all had frustratingly inconsistent years. The Crew’s most reliable defender, left back Milton Valenzuela, missed the whole season with an ACL tear. His replacement, Waylon Francis, also struggled with injuries, forcing veteran utility midfielder Hector Jimenez into the backline, where he was also knocked out of action. Over on the right side, Harrison Afful wasn’t the offensive spark he’s been in the past. Still, Columbus can make do with these players as long as they can actually play.

In the middle, you never knew which combination of Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, Aboubacar Keita, Alex Crognale and Gaston Sauro would find the field, or which version of those guys would show up. Each had their shining moments and their face-palm blunders. Sauro has since departed for Mexico, and the remaining glut of center backs does not inspire confidence. It will be interesting to see if midfielder/defender Chris Cadden gets into the center back mix when he arrives from Scotland next year, but either way this seems like a key area to upgrade in the offseason.

Midfielders: Wil Trapp and Artur remain a reliable pairing in the middle, though supporting player David Guzman leaves something to be desired. Out wide the team’s fortunes are looking up with the addition of young sparkplug Luis Diaz, the emergence of all-hustle Luis Argudo and the resurgence of Pedro Santos — assuming Columbus decides to retain his expensive services going forward. David Accam, who has been serviceable but not stunning, is off to the new Nashville expansion squad at season’s end.

The biggest question is what will become of Federico Higuain and the central playmaker spot he’s long inhabited. Higuain is getting old, and the Crew will have to replace him sooner or later. Out of contract and coming off a season-ending injury, Columbus may opt for sooner. If the team does part ways with the club hero, its ability to land a new superstar playmaker could define the 2020 season and beyond.

Forwards: The Crew extended Gyasi Zardes’ contract this year, and rightfully so; although occasionally prone to whiffing easy chances, the USMNT mainstay is one of the most consistent goal-scorers in the league. The rest of the striker corps is strictly underwhelming, a combination of journeymen and young players who haven’t yet bloomed.

It would be nice to add a dynamic forward who creates some competition with Zardes up top or pairs with him in certain situations, but that might not be affordable if the Crew goes spending elsewhere. Ultimately, blame for the team’s lack of scoring falls more on the cast of midfielders behind Zardes.