When season number 23 of MLS in Columbus gets underway, fans of the league’s first chartered club will have much more on their mind than on-field results. For hanging over everything like a dark cloud is whether or not the club will stay put beyond 2018.
It’s an ugly situation that epitomized how forgettable a year 2017 was for American soccer. Between the USMNT missing the World Cup and a storied club whose stadium created its own national team mystique threatening to leave town, things got depressing in a hurry late in the year.
But the #SaveTheCrew movement comprised of the club’s fans, those from other North American soccer teams, as well as soccer fans around the world, imparted some rays of hope. They continue to make it known to the establishment that the fight to keep the Crew in Columbus will remain strong in 2018.
From the players’ standpoint, these developments are out of their control. They can only focus on the task at hand which is working towards winning the club’s second MLS Cup exactly a decade after its first. And though they did lose some key players in the off-season, last season’s run to the Eastern Conference semifinals proved this club has the personnel to contend.
With that in mind, here are three questions that need answering over the course of Columbus Crew SC‘s 2018 campaign.
Columbus Crew SC 2018 Season Preview: Three Big Questions
How Much Will the Club Miss Ola Kamara and Justin Meram?
Not so much? Somewhat? A whole bunch? It remains to be seen how much the departures of Ola Kamara and Justin Meram will affect the team. You probably won’t fault fans for feeling a small modicum of angst over them getting sent to LA and Orlando respectively. The two combined for 33 goals and 12 assists across all competitions in 2017. That’s a prodigious amount of attacking production to replace.
Doing so will require a career revival on the part of Gyasi Zardes. The Hawthorne, CA native came to the Black and Gold in the deal that sent Kamara to the Galaxy and netted the club $400,000 in targeted allocation money (TAM). Zardes is a few seasons removed from a 17-goal campaign and an MLS Cup as Robbie Keane’s strike partner up top in So Cal. But a combination of injuries and poor form has precluded him from replicating those numbers since.
The preseason has shown promise. Zardes scored three goals during the team’s trip to Hawai’i as part of the Pacific Rim Cup. If he can carry that form into Charleston during the Carolina Challenge Cup, it may help lead Columbus to victory in the tournament for the second straight year. It will also generate some excitement about his potential in a Black and Gold uniform once the regular season commences.
So far, the club has yet to sign a replacement for Meram. They are sitting on a boatload of allocation money so one could be in the offing in either transfer window this year. For now, they could rely on Cristian Martinez as a stopgap. The 21-year-old Panamanian is himself having a decent preseason. He scored a cheeky goal against Atlanta United in the opening game of the Carolina Challenge Cup when he chipped the ball over Brad Guzan.
Will Pedro Santos Become More Goal-Dangerous on the Wing?
When Columbus signed Pedro Santos to a designated player deal, they envisioned a player who could create havoc tucking in from out wide and consistently generating opportunities at goal. He certainly did so from a pure chance creation standpoint. His 1.4 key passes per 90 ranked third on the team last year among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes. But he also assisted on just two goals and didn’t find the net himself once.
The loss of Meram on the opposite wing necessitates Santos becoming more of a legitimate goal-scoring threat on his side. He certainly did that on Saturday in the club’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United in Charleston. The Portuguese winger put in a screamer of a finish past Guzan for the opening goal of the game. He also quasi-assisted on one off a well-placed corner kick. It forced a hastened clearance out of Josef Martinez which culminated in him heading it into his own net.
Santos is bringing in DP money and with that brings added impetus to produce. For the time being, that becomes more apparent given Meram’s no longer around and it’s uncertain as to whether there’s a player on the current roster that can even come close to duplicating what he brought to the table. Santos’ ability to do so is one of a few keys in the attack that ensures this club is a major player in the Eastern Conference.
Can Milton Valenzuela Make an Immediate Impact?
With the off-season comes departures and arrivals. For the latter, there are always expectations regarding their ability to contribute right off the bat. Said expectations become magnified when it involves players who ink designated player contracts. And in that regard, fans are expecting big things out of left back Milton Valenzuela.
The 19-year-old loanee from Newell’s Old Boys in his native Argentina boasts a wealth of experience for La Albiceleste at youth level. It includes making two appearances at last year’s U-20 World Cup in the country currently hosting the Winter Olympics, South Korea. Though Valenzuela is certainly young, there’s no reason he can’t figure prominently into success for the Black and Gold in 2018. Just look at the teenage starlets impressing on much bigger stages such as Kylian Mbappe and Christian Pulisic among others.
The fact remains that teams in MLS struggle to find capable left backs more than perhaps any other role. There are a handful of standout players at the position, including Toronto FC‘s Justin Morrow, New York City FC‘s Ronald Matarrita and Atlanta United’s Greg Garza. Valenzuela certainly has a chance to join them if he can defend, overlap and create on the left-hand side the way Harrison Afful does on the right. If he does so, it’ll result in a sounder defensive unit with the ability to create additional attacking punch on wing overloads.