With its two best players gone for the season, the Crew is at a crossroads
Zack Steffen's big farewell at Mapfre Stadium on Saturday, June 1, was almost as beautiful as anyone could have hoped. Almost.
The U.S. men's national team goalkeeper is transferring from Columbus to English Premier League champs Manchester City, who paid $10 million for his rights and reportedly plan to loan him out to German club Fortuna Düsseldorf in the short term. After a week of #ThankYouZack promotion ahead of his final game with the Crew, the franchise presented Steffen with a plaque during a pregame ceremony and populated the scoreboard with social media tributes all night. Following the match he circled Mapfre one last time, answering the crowd's ovations with applause of his own.
If only the action in between had given him more of a storybook exit. Twice Columbus took the lead against New York City FC, and twice New York came back to tie it. Neither NYC goal was primarily Steffen's fault; both could have been prevented by more vigilant defense. Instead of walking out of Columbus with a shutout — or even a win — he had to settle for a home draw.
It's been that kind of season for Crew SC, so far. Things took another discouraging turn last week when the team announced midfield maestro Federico Higuain, who recently became the Crew's all-time assist leader and sits third all-time in goals, would be out for the season following knee surgery. Higuain's contract ends this year. Ditto a number of other key players.
The Crew is in flux. It's a scenario fans surely prefer over a year ago, when the team had a clear on-field identity but was exploring a move to Austin. Still, the chances of a playoff run seem significantly reduced, and the inevitable rebuilding phase may already be underway by default. The future is now.
That doesn't have to be a bad thing. Porter and team president Tim Bezbatchenko are working on player acquisitions for the Secondary Transfer Window between July 9 and Aug. 7, which could jumpstart a late-season revival. And the existing roster already has a chance to step up and experiment in Higuain's absence, as was evident this past Saturday, when the team enacted a fast-paced attack more in keeping with Porter's preference.
Those who remain have three weeks to regroup while MLS breaks for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where Steffen and Columbus teammates Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes will compete for the U.S. There is one bit of official Crew action during that stretch, though: Tuesday, June 11, the team will host the minor-league Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, one of the oldest domestic soccer tournaments in the world.
Many MLS teams use the Open Cup to get minutes for their reserves. For several Crew players, Tuesday's match will be a chance to prove they can comfortably step into a superstar's shoes — or at least that they deserve to stick around when Porter and Bez begin clearing house.