This weekend marks the beginning of the 2018 MLS season. For Columbus Crew SC, a lot of the focus is off the field rather than on it due to the continued uncertainty surrounding the league’s first chartered club. But the games must be played and the first one for the Black and Gold takes place Saturday afternoon.
The team awaiting them is Toronto FC, the same one that eliminated them from last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs. There’s a noticeable sense of irony in the matchup considering both teams’ 2017 seasons ended at the same venue that their 2018 season is beginning. Toronto defeated Columbus at BMO Field only to win their maiden MLS Cup title over the Seattle Sounders a little over a week later.
As these two Trillium Cup rivals prepare to do battle north of the border, who are the three players worth keeping an eye on for the visitors? All of them have an opportunity to impact the game positively in their own unique ways. It’s time to have a look.
Columbus Crew SC Season Opener: Three Players to Watch
There may not be a player in MLS with more to prove in 2018 than Gyasi Zardes. The 26-year-old endured his toughest season as a professional last season which turned out to be his last for the LA Galaxy. Not only did his team finish with the worst record in MLS for the first time in league history. He himself managed a paltry two goals, the lowest total of his career.
But if the preseason was any indication, Zardes may be in line for a career renaissance. He registered a whopping six goals in the five games Columbus contested as part of the Pacific Rim Cup and Carolina Challenge Cup. Though it’s always difficult to surmise how one’s form will translate to when games actually matter, fans certainly have reason to be optimistic given what we’ve seen so far.
The Crew SC identity under manager Gregg Berhalter certainly sets up Zardes for success. The ability to generate chances via wide play from wingers and overlapping fullbacks is a hallmark of his tactics. What Zardes has excelled at in the preseason is timing his central runs to coincide with the distribution from those areas. Combine that with the added ingredient of his finishing touch returning and you have a recipe for success. And if he can also get quality service centrally from the club’s midfield maestro, Federico Higuain, this club can pull off the upset on Saturday.
Any off-season in any professional league always carries with it intrigue over a given team’s new signings. MLS is no different and plenty of names are generating interest. Among them are Atlanta United‘s Ezequiel Barco and LAFC’s Carlos Vela in addition to plenty of others. Not surprisingly, Columbus’ new arrivals are flying under the radar. The biggest example in that regard is Milton Valenzuela.
The Argentinian left back is without a doubt the club’s marquee signing of the off-season. He boasts experience at international level with Argentina’s national team, having played for La Albiceleste at the most recently completed FIFA U-20 World Cup. In a league starved of quality left backs, Valenzuela is in line to make an immediate impact. He’s certainly an important piece in Berhalter’s overall tactical puzzle.
What sets the 19-year-old apart is the fact that he’s sound in both the attacking and defensive third. He can take on players out wide on the way to firing in crosses. And he also excels at winning possession which should serve Columbus well considering the continued question marks surrounding the back line. Not only that, but he’s a pretty decent threat in the air for a player who’s 5’6″. The fact he averaged 1.2 aerial duels won per game for his previous club Newell’s Old Boys is a testament to that. All in all, this young designated player is going to impress in 2018.
In last year’s playoffs, perhaps the one Columbus player who stood out the most was goalkeeper Zack Steffen. It all started in the knockout round against Atlanta when he outdueled a regular USMNT backstop in Brad Guzan during the penalty shootout. His exploits throughout the playoffs led to him receiving the first senior national team call-up of his career. He played in the second half of the US’ most recent international friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Against Toronto, Steffen will need to continue to show his quality in net. He’s facing one of the most dynamic attacks in the league that includes Victor Vazquez, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and other players with varying degrees of danger near the goal. Couple that with the Black and Gold’s well-documented defensive issues and it requires him to bring his A-game. He certainly did so in the last meeting between these two teams. Despite the loss, he made five saves.
With the national team in transition (understatement of the century!), Steffen has a huge opportunity in front of himself this year. If he can build on last year’s campaign that saw him play every single minute across all competitions for Columbus, the future is bright. Steffen may indeed be the natural successor to Guzan and Tim Howard. And who knows? It may lead to another opportunity in Europe under better circumstances.