2017 turned out to be the most tumultuous in the history of Columbus Crew SC.
The club certainly rebounded from last year’s campaign which saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in Gregg Berhalter’s tenure with the club. Not only did they return to the postseason. They nearly upended three big money clubs in a row en route to their second MLS Cup appearance in three years.
Ultimately, things came to an end in the Eastern Conference semifinals after a 1-0 aggregate loss to Toronto FC. But the team’s playoff run captivated American soccer fans in the wake of owner Anthony Precourt’s threat to move the team to Austin, TX. That story won’t go away as the movement to save the Crew will endure into 2018.
With a memorable 2017 now in the books, it’s time to review the highs and lows of the year. Which players stood out? What went in the club’s favor and, consequently, what threatened to derail their season? All of it will be discussed below.
Columbus Crew SC 2017 Season Review
There are a few Crew players deserving of consideration for this honor. Zack Steffen impressed mightily in goal, especially during the playoffs with his multiple penalty kick saves. Justin Meram put together the most prolific season of his career from the standpoint of goals with 13. But in the end, Federico Higuaín’s resume stands out above all others.
His sixth season with the club saw the 33-year-old establish his presence as one of the top playmakers in MLS. The Argentinian finished the regular season with a combined 23 goals and assists (nine goals, 14 assists) which was tied for seventh best in the league. He also was one of seven MLS players who averaged less than 100 minutes per goal or assist among those who logged at least 2,000 minutes.
Higuaín also excelled at providing ample scoring opportunities for his teammates. Only 11 other players in MLS finished with more than his 69 chances created. And he added a further nine during the playoffs along with a pair of assists. Simply put, his play late in the season precipitated the club’s blazing hot form late in the year. Nine of his 14 helpers came during Columbus’ ten-game unbeaten run to close out the regular season.
What Went Right
You don’t come within a round of MLS Cup without some beneficial things happening along the way. For Columbus, part of what propelled them to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference was a dynamic attack that at the beginning of the year included Higuain, Meram, Ola Kamara and Ethan Finlay. Kekuta Manneh later joined from Vancouver while Finlay eventually parted ways with the team in a trade with Minnesota United. And ahead of the summer transfer window closing, the club signed Portuguese winger Pedro Santos.
All in all, the team registered 53 goals in 2017, the seventh highest total in the league. Kamara followed up last year’s prolific effort with an even bigger one, totaling 18 goals which only Josef Martinez (19), reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri (21), last year’s MVP David Villa (22) and Nemanja Nikolic (24) exceeded. Manneh added four, including a ridiculous screamer against his former club on September 16. Santos didn’t find the net but provided two assists and led the team with 11 chances created in the playoffs.
The club forged a solid identity in defensive midfield with Wil Trapp, Mohammed Abu and Artur all contributing in unique ways. Trapp and Abu averaged 88.5 passing accuracy with both ranking in the top 12 in that statistic. For Trapp, his ability to provide pinpoint passes to his teammates showed up in the fact that his 158 accurate long balls ranked 15th in MLS among non-goalkeepers. Artur continuously proved his quality in winning possession. He finished the regular season as one of 14 MLS players who appeared in at least 1,500 minutes to register at least 7.5 recoveries per 90.
And of course, Steffen’s play in net is particularly noteworthy. He appeared in every single minute for Crew SC in 2017 and, counting the playoffs, logged more minutes than any other player in MLS this season. He also led the league in saves of shots inside the box while exuding confidence on the goal line on penalty kicks. Of the 13 he faced, six resulted in saves. His USMNT hype train is currently running at ludicrous speed.
What Went Wrong
One of the more frustrating elements during the majority of Berhalter’s tenure in Columbus has been the back line, particularly central defense. Issues within that unit reared their ugly head most prominently last year. The club conceded 58 goals, tied with the Chicago Fire for the second worst total in MLS. There’s no doubt it played a pivotal role in the club missing out on the postseason.
It forced a bit of a gambit on Berhalter’s part in the off-season. He brought in Ghanaian World Cup veteran Jonathan Mensah on a designated player deal in an attempt to shore things up. The Crew SC head coach and sporting director also made an investment in the future via the MLS SuperDraft, picking Lalas Abubakar in the first round. While the rookie acquitted himself well in limited minutes, Mensah struggled mightily to adjust to MLS for a good part of the year.
Whether it was getting pulled out of position, committing costly fouls or poor man marking, Mensah pretty much did it all. It led many to put him into the conversation for one of the worst D.P. signings in league history early on. But it must be said that things stabilized when him and Josh Williams became the center back pairing du jour down the stretch. The defense conceded just 1.23 goals per game over the final half of the year and finished in the top half of the league in goals against for 2017.
Another thing that really doomed the team’s championship hopes was the proverbial well drying up from a finishing standpoint in the playoffs. With the exception of their 4-1 demolition of New York City FC in the first leg of the conference semis, Columbus failed to register a single goal. That dearth of finishing quality manifested itself most glaringly in their second leg defeat to TFC in the next round. Both Meram and Kamara missed huge opportunities to send this club back to MLS Cup.
What They Need to Do to Contend in 2018
After coming just two wins short of their goal, Columbus is fairly well-positioned to remain a player in the Eastern Conference. But Berhalter likely needs to shake up the roster somewhat more than he did after nearly winning a championship in 2015. Combined with the Kei Kamara debacle, the lack of competition within the squad seemed to make things a bit stale. And missing the playoffs a year later served as an indicator of that. This time around, a little less roster continuity may be a good thing.
With Higuaín not getting any younger, adding some depth at the number ten position is among the more important tasks this off-season. With the looming departures of Jukka Raitala and Waylon Francis, the club is in desperate need of some talent infusion at left back. And with Artur unlikely to return (unless Columbus sweetens their offer to São Paulo for him), the Black and Gold are also in the market for a starting caliber box-to-box midfielder. Abu showed flashes in that role but not enough to cement his status as a starter game in and game out.
Ultimately, contending for a title isn’t priority one among supporters in 2018. Keeping the club in Columbus where it rightfully belongs will most definitely take precedence. The grassroots #SaveTheCrew movement isn’t going anywhere, no matter how much Precourt and Don Garber want to ignore it. And as their efforts continue to get exposed, (see the Columbus Dispatch’s Andrew Erickson’s Twitter post on Tuesday morning) it becomes more apparent how slimy and nefarious this whole situation is. Columbus deserves its soccer club for years to come, and 2018 will prove it to the higher ups who run the sport in this country.