Some things to watch as a new season kicks off
Hey — the Crew is saved! Therefore, there’s a new season of soccer to look forward to, beginning at home against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, March 2. The new Columbus regime is facing many challenges on and off the pitch. Let’s look at five looming questions that will define 2019.
1. Will people show up?
The Crew’s average attendance last year was 12,447 — last in MLS. There were some legitimate reasons for that. Some people didn’t want to financially support management that seemed intent on moving the team to Austin. Others didn’t want to root for a lame duck. The Crew’s historically liberal tabulation methods also seemed to tighten up significantly.
Still, Columbus struggled in attendance and other (sigh) business metrics for years before Anthony Precourt threatened to pull the plug. The Save the Crew movement argued that engaged local investor-operators would fix that. We’ll see!
2. Can the Crew score?
Outgoing coach Gregg Berhalter implemented a tactically complex system that carried the Crew deep into the postseason many times. It just didn’t yield many goals. Columbus scored 43 last year, tied for second worst in MLS. New coach Caleb Porter says he wants opponents to fear the Crew, not just respect them. If he can get Berhalter’s roster to play “dominant football,” watch out.
3. Specifically, can the wingers score?
Porter expects many of those goals to come from his wingers, who were not great last year. Pedro Santos has never justified his Designated Player price tag. Justin Meram had a brilliant 2017 but was a shadow of his old self upon returning from half a season in Orlando. Much depends on whether these guys — or the newly acquired Robinho — can play like the stars they’re supposed to be.
4. Can Zack Steffen be replaced?
Elite goalkeeper Zack Steffen will depart to Manchester City of the English Premier League in July. Steffen is a likely future World Cup starter who has saved PKs by Wayne Rooney and David Villa and has single-handedly won matches for Columbus, if you can say that about a guy who doesn’t score goals. The Crew recently acquired veteran Joe Bendik from Orlando, adding goalkeeping depth. But with all due respect, he’s no Steffen. Will Bendik be a workable solution, or does the Crew have another keeper in mind?
5. Is this core of players championship material?
Several names remain from the 2015 team that came maddeningly close to winning MLS Cup: Meram, Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp, Harrison Afful, Gaston Sauro, Hector Jimenez and the recently returned Waylon Francis. Other figures, such as Steffen, Santos, Artur, Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah, have now played multiple seasons in Columbus. It’s a familiar cast of characters, one that has consistently performed well. But with new leadership in place, this may be the group’s last chance at a championship before Porter and president Tim Bezbatchenko put their own stamp on the roster. That quest begins Saturday at Mapfre.