Crew View: Goodbye goals, goodbye Gyasi, goodbye season?
The Crew can’t afford to wait for a major acquisition before turning its downward momentum around
The vibes around the Columbus Crew right now are extremely unpleasant. After going undefeated through their first four matches, the Crew is winless since March 12, which has sent them tumbling down to 12th place in the Eastern Conference with nine points on a 2-3-3 record. They haven’t scored a goal in MLS play since March 20, unless you count the own goal logged by goalkeeper Eloy Room on April 9. The one goal Columbus did score recently was on a penalty kick in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against minor-league Detroit City FC — who then pulled off a second-half comeback to eliminate Columbus from the tournament — and the Crew just traded away the guy who scored it. No wonder Gyasi Zardes was smiling so enthusiastically upon stepping off the plane in Denver.
On one hand, it’s not like Zardes — the MLS and U.S. men’s national team veteran, who sits third on the Crew’s all-time goal-scorers list with 61 over four seasons and change — was bagging a lot of goals at the dawn of his fifth Crew campaign. In fact, not counting that PK in the Open Cup, he hasn’t scored since notching his lone league goal at San Jose way back on March 5. On the other hand, it’s not like Zardes was getting that much opportunity. Coach Caleb Porter has started 24-year-old Miguel Berry over Zardes in all but one game so far, despite Berry not scoring since a 4-0 trouncing of Vancouver to open the season on Feb. 26.
Zardes, 30, has never been quite a superstar, but he’s been enough of a reliable goal-scorer to hold down MLS starting jobs for a decade, log 68 appearances with the national team, and remain in the picture for this year’s World Cup roster. It must have been frustrating for him to be stuck on the bench while his replacement suffered a two-month scoring drought. For fans who built a deep sentimental connection to Zardes during his championship-winning tenure with the Crew, seeing him dealt to the Colorado Rapids last week was painful. But when you take the feelings out of it, you can see why Columbus decided to move on.
The fact is no one on the Crew has been scoring lately: not Berry, not Zardes, not Lucas Zelarayán, not anybody. The team needs a fresh infusion of talent up top — a true No. 9 to light up opposing defenses and take some of the pressure off of Zelarayán — and Zardes fetched a much richer return on the trade market than Berry ever would have. Colorado is paying Columbus a guaranteed $300,000 in GAM (general allocation money) for Zardes, a figure that may balloon to as much as $1.4 million depending on how he performs. The Rapids are also covering his full contract.
The Crew intends to spend that money on a new Designated Player (one of several players per team who can be paid above the salary cap), ideally a new striker. Actually, signing anything but a big-ticket striker might be malpractice on President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko’s part. A genuine threat in front of the net would be transformative for any team. For Columbus, which has often dominated games but has put its defense under extreme pressure through its failure to score, a player like that might be the difference between contention and collapse.
But reinforcements will not be arriving speedily. The international transfer window does not open until June 10. In the meantime, the team signed 22-year-old Noah Fuson, a forward from their new reserve squad Columbus Crew 2, to a short-term loan deal — potentially a spark for the offense, but not exactly a Mo Salah-like infusion. Now that Zardes is gone, the Crew’s depth chart at the forward position is pretty bleak: the currently underachieving Berry, the deeply unimpressive Erik Hurtado, the relatively unknown Fuson, two guys who actually play winger (one of whom is currently injured), and… that’s it.
By the time Columbus can add a marquee attacker this summer, the season could be slipping out of reach. Barring a blockbuster trade with another MLS team, the current Crew roster will have to figure out how to put the ball in the net. (The other team’s net. Not their own net.) Theoretically an offensive revival could start as soon as this Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home game against D.C. United, a team that was recently in a freefall of its own until a victory over New England last weekend in the first match since Hernán Losada was fired as head coach.
A growing number of fans would like to see Porter similarly dismissed, and it’s true that the Columbus coach has had an air of desperation about him lately. He declined to speak with the media after the Crew’s Open Cup disaster in Detroit. His critics decry his long list of excuses. It’s hard to believe this guy with the deer-in-the-headlights expression is the same coach who shepherded the team’s 2020 run to MLS Cup.
But Porter did at one time preside over a champion. Some of these players, once upon a time, could be counted on to score goals and carry themselves like winners. Things could still change. The vibe could still shift. But Porter’s team cannot afford to wait for a big-splash acquisition to alter the fate of this team. Saving their season is going to have to start with these current players, and soon.