Alive's biweekly Crew column returns with a season preview in advance of Sunday's kick-off game at Mapfre Stadium

Could 2020 be the year everything snaps back into focus for the Columbus Crew?          

Casual observers may be tempted to view the forthcoming season as a lull between 2019’s year-long #SavedTheCrew celebration and the opening of a new Downtown stadium midway through 2021, especially given that Columbus missed the playoffs last year and several fan favorites have departed the team. But there are reasons to believe the Crew’s final full season in Mapfre Stadium will be a good one.        

Columbus finished last season on a hot streak, with only two losses in its last 13 matches. Since then, the team has made some splashy offseason signings; where Caleb Porter and president Tim Bezbatchenko essentially spent 2019 shepherding what Gregg Berhalter built, the roster is now truly their own. Crew SC put together an impressive preseason run that concluded with a 4-1 shellacking of Houston to win the Tucson Sun Cup. The momentum is all positive.

So when the 25th season of Crew soccer kicks off Sunday, March 1, with a 12:30 p.m. home contest against New York City FC, it could easily be the beginning of something beautiful.

Here are five storylines to watch as the 2020 MLS campaign gets underway.

1. Is Lucas Zelarayán worth the money?

The Crew paid a club-record transfer fee — reportedly more than $7 million — to acquire Zelarayán, a 27-year-old Argentine midfielder the team hopes will be the creative force driving its attack. He’ll take over for countryman and Crew legend Federico Higuain as the chief playmaker in the middle of the pitch, a role he most recently filled part-time for Mexican powerhouse Tigres while also playing out wide.

As a highly paid Designated Player and the de facto face of the Crew, Zelarayán is stepping into a high-pressure leadership role the likes of which he’s never previously fulfilled. Based on preseason observations, Porter recently assured The Dispatch that his new midfield maestro is up to the task: “He is every bit as good as I thought. … He’s never in the wrong position. He’s extremely technical, and he’s the brains of our team.”

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2. Who will fill the leadership void?

If Zelarayán is the brains, who will be the Crew’s heart? A month ago Columbus somewhat shockingly dealt homegrown star and longtime captain Wil Trapp to David Beckham’s new expansion franchise, Inter Miami. The move made soccer sense; the addition of players including Darlington Nagbe, Chris Cadden and Sebastian Berhalter created a glut at the holding midfielder position that might have led to Trapp riding the bench in Columbus. Given Trapp’s deep local roots and graceful professionalism — particularly during the Save The Crew saga — replacing his intangible presence might not be so simple.

At press time, the Crew’s new captain had not yet been announced, but core contributors like Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Mensah and Pedro Santos seem like candidates for the role. Another possibility is Nagbe, who has Ohio ties (he played under Porter at Akron just before Trapp did) and MLS Cup championship pedigree (he’s won with Portland — also under Porter, against the Crew in 2015 — and again with Atlanta in 2018). Regardless of who wears the armband, without Trapp and Higuain in the fold, it will be interesting to see who steps up to steady and motivate the team in crucial moments.

3. Is the ever-shifting backline finally about to cohere?

Injuries and inconsistent play have rendered the Crew’s defense a revolving door in recent years. In the team's final preseason match, it fielded what looks like it could become a rock-solid back four in front of starting goalkeeper Eloy Room. Out left is young stud Milton Valenzuela, who was sidelined all of last year with an ACL tear. To the right is veteran live-wire Harrison Afful, who also missed significant time in 2019 with a broken jawbone. In the middle are Mensah — a longstanding DP who has become the foundation of this defense — and awesomely named new signee Vito Wormgoor.

That said, the Crew has accumulated some impressive depth in the defensive ranks, such that the team started an entirely different back four in the prior preseason tuneup. Ohio natives Josh Williams and Aboubacar Keita are also available at center back, while Cadden and longtime utility man Hector Jimenez can slot in out wide, where they join Valenzuela and Afful as fullbacks capable of getting forward and into the attack per Porter’s preference.

4. Can Fanendo Adi get it together?

Nagbe isn’t the only member of Porter’s championship Portland Timbers squad who relocated to Columbus this offseason. The Crew also picked up Nigerian striker Fanendo Adi in a trade that sees in-state rival FC Cincinnati paying a large percentage of his hefty paycheck. A former Designated Player, Adi was a powerhouse in Portland but had a tumultuous 2019 in Cincinnati involving persistent injuries and an OVI arrest.

If he’s a liability, Adi also presents huge upside for Columbus, be it as a super-sub or in tandem with Zardes. If he can regain his form and the coaches can figure out how to deploy him effectively, the possibilities for Crew SC’s attacking front are tantalizing.

Speaking of which...

5. Is this the year the goals finally come?

Porter is an offense-focused coach, and this time last year he promised that his teams tend to score a lot. That wasn’t the case for the 2019 Columbus Crew, whose 39 goals were third worst in the league. (By comparison, LAFC tallied a whopping 85.) Offensive woes were typical of the Berhalter era, so maybe now that Porter has installed more of his own players, the goal deluge will finally begin.

Last Saturday’s preseason finale was certainly a step in that direction. Less than a quarter into the match, Columbus had already gone up 4-0 on Houston thanks to a Zardes brace, plus goals from Mensah and Zelarayán. If the likes of Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz, Youness Mokhtar and Derrick Etienne Jr. can bring on a similar barrage from the wings, the Crew’s offense will be unstoppable. That’s a big if, but the fact that it’s a plausible scenario bodes well for the 2020 Crew.