Editorial (November 29, 2018) — Has any team in MLS history faced an onslaught of off-field distractions the likes of which Columbus Crew SC dealt with in 2018?
For nearly the entire season, uncertainty abounded as to the club’s future in Columbus. There was a legitimate concern that the last home game of the year, whether it occurred in the regular season or playoffs, would be the last MLS game played at MAPFRE Stadium.
That turned out not to be the case with the positive developments regarding the plan to keep the Crew in Ohio’s capital city. In the end, Anthony Precourt will get his wish to eventually operate a club in Austin, TX. But the new local ownership group that includes Pete Edwards, Jr. and Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam helped avert what would’ve been one of the darkest moments in American soccer history.
On the field, Crew SC played some high-level soccer. It culminated in a playoff berth which saw them upset D.C. United in the knockout round before they ultimately fell to the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The knockout round result marked the second straight year Columbus upended a team on the road via a penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, now on his way to Manchester City in the English Premier League, played a significant role in both wins.
Steffen isn’t the only person departing the club. What was rumored for quite a few weeks became official on Wednesday with Gregg Berhalter officially set to become the next USMNT manager. A reason for him ascending to that position is related to what he accomplished during his tenure in Columbus. His final season as manager had its share of memorable moments, standout players, and things to improve on.
Columbus Crew SC 2018 Season Review
Team MVP: Gyasi Zardes
Steffen certainly warranted consideration for this accolade. After all, his play in goal this season caught the attention of Pep Guardiola, one of the most iconic managers of this generation. But putting the ball in the back of the net with regularity garners praise as well. And only three players in MLS did it better than Gyasi Zardes.
It was one of the more inspiring revival stories in the league. One year prior, Zardes’ goal-scoring prowess evaporated to the point the LA Galaxy coaching staff began deploying him at right back. But he thrived in his first season as the point striker in Berhalter’s system to the tune of 20 goals in all competitions. It led to him earning MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors.
The 27-year-old closed out the season in style with his first career hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Minnesota United in the season finale. He followed that up with the lone goal in leg one of the conference semis that initially put Columbus ahead of the Red Bulls. It led to him joining Stern John and Kei Kamara as the only players in club history to score 20 or more goals across all competitions in a single season. Him maintaining such form under the new coaching staff is crucial in 2019.
What Went Right
Zardes’ exploits weren’t the only thing that precipitated a postseason run in 2018. Columbus got a great deal of high-caliber play on the back end, including from their goalkeeper Steffen. From the 45th minute of a 2-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on April 28 until the 30th minute of a 2-0 loss to Atlanta United on June 13, Steffen didn’t concede a goal. It now stands as a club record streak as well as the eighth-longest in MLS history.
But it wasn’t just Steffen stopping shots by himself that vaulted Crew SC into the playoffs. His back line played consistently well in front of them as well. The team as a whole didn’t concede a goal in 10 games during the regular season, a mark bested by only the Philadelphia Union (11), Sporting KC (13), and the Red Bulls (15). Two of those clubs are still alive in the playoffs, with SKC extremely well-positioned to make MLS Cup.
Having players who can execute solid link-up play with their distribution is crucial to Berhalter’s system. Columbus enjoyed plenty of that in 2018. Of Crew SC players who logged at least 1,500 minutes of game action during the regular season, five finished with a pass accuracy higher than 85 percent, tied for second-best in MLS. It included the reliable defensive midfield partnership of Artur and captain Wil Trapp. In addition, center back Lalas Abubakar was one of just five players in the league to complete over 90 percent of his passes.
Last but certainly not least is Federico Higuain. The veteran attacking midfield maestro continued to make the case to join Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk on the ring of honor. Higuain tallied six goals and nine assists during the regular season and added a brace in Crew SC’s win over D.C. in the knockout round. His quality as a chance-creating dynamo showed up time and time again. It showed in the fact that he averaged 3.2 key passes per 90. Only Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri finished with a higher number among players with at least 2,000 minutes played.
What Went Wrong
The biggest thing that held this team back in 2018 was Zardes not receiving a lot of goal-scoring support. Higuain’s six tallies were the second-best total on the team. To put that in perspective, only the Colorado Rapids how lower output out of their second-leading scorer during the regular season. What that indicates is that Crew SC’s wide play took a rather concerning step back from previous years.
Gone are the days when Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay made up one of the most potent wing duos in MLS. Finlay’s replacement, Pedro Santos, has not justified his lofty salary with his play since joining Crew SC. And one can only hope that Meram can channel his inner Zardes and revive his ability to consistently find the net in 2019. The club certainly has some young depth at the position with Luis Argudo and Niko Hansen. Argudo exhibited quite a bit of versatility in his rookie year, playing out wide and also centrally.
Overall, though, the biggest thing that held this team back and ultimately prevented them from making a deeper playoff run was the one-dimensional nature of the attack.
Things to Improve on in 2019
Which brings us to the three biggest off-season needs: shoring up the club’s wide play, getting the manager hire right, and replacing Steffen. This club boasts a solid albeit somewhat aging core and is just a few impact signings away from augmenting their competitiveness next season.
But they need to get everything right. Both Steffen and Berhalter will ostensibly be difficult to replace. There’s a reason the former came onto the radar of Man City and the other is on his way to the USMNT. And having a lockdown keeper as well as a tactically astute manager are both indispensable elements of teams who contend for titles.
2018 was a season like no other in Columbus. North American sports’ most organic grassroots movement helped ensure that the club’s future remained there. On the field, the Crew proved the doubters wrong once again with a memorable run in the playoffs. Next season will represent a new era in so many ways for this MLS original. But there’s much work to be done in the off-season to ensure they remain an aesthetically pleasing presence on the pitch.