It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Heading into the Columbus Crew SC 2016 season, there was plenty of optimism. It comes with the territory associated with making MLS Cup the previous year and having almost all the players from that team return. Despite a 2-1 home loss to the Portland Timbers in the final, expectations were high that a repeat performance was possible.
Columbus Crew SC 2016 Season Review
Simply put, those lofty goals were never realized. It began with an 0-3-2 start to the year that had everyone screaming “MLS Cup hangover.” They appeared to sober up after that, though, winning two of their next three and enjoying a 3-1 second half lead against the Montreal Impact on May 7th.
Then came the now infamous penalty kick dust-up between Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara. With the 2015 MLS MVP runner-up in Kamara on a hat trick, the first of his career, he was adamant about taking the kick. But Higuain ended up converting it to make it 4-1. Crew SC collapsed in the aftermath, surrendering three goals in 33 minutes in what would become a 4-4 tie.
Kamara’s subsequent post-game comments, where he essentially threw Higuain under the bus, created an untenable situation in the locker room. His refusal to back down from them when asked about it a few days later stoked the flames even more. And so Crew SC was forced to trade Kamara to the New England Revolution.
The doom and gloom sentiment was certainly there after Kamara’s departure. But, in retrospect, it turned out to be the right move. Off-season acquisition Ola Kamara assumed the number nine role for Crew SC and didn’t look back. He finished with 16 goals which was tied for fifth-best in MLS. Meanwhile, Kei scored just seven in 21 appearances for the Revs after the trade.
But surrendering leads, as they did in Kei’s final appearance for the club, would become a maddeningly recurrent theme. In their final 25 games after the Kamara trade, Crew SC were leading at some point in 16 of them. They won six, tied seven and lost three (25 out of a possible 48 points).
To sum it up, the Crew SC 2016 season was one to forget. In comparison to other less than savory campaigns in club history, it’s pretty bad. The following visual, which shows the five worst seasons in Columbus history by points per game, should reinforce that notion.
Only in 2006 did Crew SC finish with less points per game. That season is noteworthy in that it remains the only time in club history where Columbus finished with the worst record in MLS. The silver lining was that two years later, the Black and Gold were hoisting MLS Cup.
One can only hope that a similar reversal of fortune is on the cards for next season. But before focusing on 2017, it makes sense to review the good (yeah, there was some) and bad from 2016 one last time.
What Went Right
Yes, Crew SC will be on the outside looking in from a playoff standpoint. Yes, what transpired this year not what was expected when the Crew SC 2016 season began. But that’s not to say that there weren’t at least a few bright spots.
Ola Kamara turned out to be a revelation for the Black and Gold. In 19 starts, the Norwegian center forward tallied 16 goals and finished among the league leaders in scoring. His 0.77 goals per 90 was third in MLS behind only Frank Lampard (0.84) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (0.78). It’s hard to say that he hasn’t put together a resume worthy of being named MLS Newcomer of the Year.
Harrison Afful firmly made his case for being considered the best right back in MLS. His ability to overlap in attack and track back to defend was on full display all year. The 30-year-old Ghanaian led all outside backs in the league with three goals while also adding three assists. His 76 interceptions was top five among players at his position. And among Crew SC players who attempted 50 tackles, his 76 percent tackle success rate led the team.
Nicolai Naess signed with the club during the summer transfer window and immediately made an impact in multiple positions on the pitch. In addition to his regular center back role, Naess slotted into defensive midfield when Wil Trapp suffered a concussion August 27th against San Jose, forcing him to miss a month.
How good was he in Trapp’s place? Advanced statistics website Whoscored.com actually gave him a higher rating as a d-mid than as a central defender since he joined Crew SC. His comfort on the ball and ability to deliver long passes with pinpoint accuracy will be a highly valued asset going forward.
Finally, Justin Meram is worth discussing in a positive light. The Crew SC left winger finished with five goals and added a career high 13 assists. To put that in perspective, he had 13 helpers in his previous five seasons in the league combined.
He also established himself as one of MLS’ best two-way wingers. His 62 tackles was second behind New England‘s Kelyn Rowe among attack-oriented players. It’s no wonder he finished the season as the 11th highest rated player in the league according to WhoScored.
What Went Wrong
It doesn’t take a soccer savant to come to the conclusion that 2016 did not go according to plan for Crew SC. As mentioned above, the Black and Gold finished with the second worst record on a points per game basis in club history. This after nearly coming away with their second league championship the year before. What precipitated such a steep drop-off in form?
The club’s frustrating inability to protect leads could be the biggest culprit. In ten games did Columbus have a lead at some point only to finish with a draw or outright loss. That’s way too many points to be throwing away over the course of a 34-game regular season.
A leaky back line was a contributing factor. Despite finishing with the seventh highest goal total (50) in MLS, Crew SC conceded the second worst (58). Injuries played a particularly big factor in negatively impacting the club’s depth, especially in central defense.
The biggest loss was Gaston Sauro, who tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a 0-0 draw with Toronto FC on May 21st. The team went 3-5-6 in his absence and a majority of the games they tied or lost despite enjoying a lead occurred during this time.
Ethan Finlay also experienced a rather noticeable decline after a spectacular 2015 campaign that saw him earn a USMNT call-up. After accounting for 20.5 percent of Crew SC’s goals and assists in 2015, that number plummeted to 15.5 percent this year. An analysis of his three seasons under manager Gregg Berhalter, shown below, indicates how much of a struggle 2016 truly was.
Berhalter and the Crew SC front office has some tough decisions to make in the off-season. The plan heading into 2016 was to keep the core of this squad intact while adding depth behind it. After all, those players came within a game of winning a championship. But that obviously backfired, as the lack of a playoff appearance can attest.
One of the first things they need to do is figure out which 11 players to protect for December’s expansion draft. MLS newcomers Atlanta United and Minnesota United will get the chance to pick five non-protected players among the 20 current teams as a means of building their roster. That aspect of the off-season, in and of itself, will partially determine the makeup of Crew SC next year.
Now it may be overkill to throw a wrecking ball at the entire roster and blow things up. The players discussed in the “What Went Right” category all have proven they belong in this club’s future plans. But make no mistake about it. Fans will have to get acquainted with quite a few new faces in 2017.
Among the few things we’ve learned from MLS 2016 is that it’s possible to realize a quick turnaround in fortune from the previous season. Colorado finished dead last in the Western Conference last year but had a chance to win the Supporters’ Shield on Decision Day. What this shows is that if you can make the right moves formulating the roster while executing on the field, you can go from pretender to contender in a very short time.
The most important off-season of Berhalter’s tenure is fast approaching. In due time, Crew SC fans will know full well who’s staying and who’s leaving after a 2016 campaign devoid of the postseason. And new arrivals via the transfer market, trade, free agency, SuperDraft, etc. will attempt to right the ship and return this team to where it belongs.
Photo courtesy of Columbus Crew SC Communications