There are big things happening in Columbus right now. Most of that revolves around the fact that, well, the Columbus Crew still exist and aren’t moving to Austin, Texas. New England Revolution fans are at times a loathesome bunch, but I was damn happy to see the #SavedTheCrew movement playout in spectacular fashion.
On the field, familiar MLS coach Caleb Porter is back in the league and he takes over a pretty consistent and stable team that is looking to get back over the top. In 2015 the then Porter-led Portland Timbers defeated the Crew in the MLS Cup Final and now Porter inherits a team that has finished in 5th place each of the last two seasons and gotten out of the single-game playoff round both times. So Columbus isn’t exactly a team that’s far away from being great, yet it seems like this has been the same team we’ve seen for a few years now with just different strikers up top.
Also, if you can bring back Crew Cat, you can bring back the Hard Hat Guys. I’m just saying...
TBM: Porter-ball has come to Columbus but what is going to change short term? It seems like the bulk of last year’s team is still here so are there any significant lineup/tactical switches we’ll see than in years past?
PM: Not really. The starting lineup for last week’s game against the Red Bulls was more or less the same as how the Crew ended 2018. The major difference, if you can call it that, is Waylon Francis at left back instead of the injured Milton Valenzuela.
The differences that are there are tactical and more subtle. Porter is not all that different from Gregg Berhalter in that he wants an attacking team that keeps the ball. The differences are that Porter wants more possession and creation in the middle of the field and his teams will counter-press when they lose the ball. This has pushed Wil Trapp up the field higher into a double-pivot role with Artur instead of dropping deep to connect with the backline. Columbus will still look to play a similar game as Revs fans have seen in previous years.
TBM: Gyasi Zardes had a breakout scoring year with 19 goals in 2018, but didn’t have a lot of scoring help beyond Federico Higuain’s 6G/9A year. Who needs to step up and have a better offensive year for the Crew in 2019?
PM: The wingers for certain. The Crew didn’t have trouble scoring goals under Berhalter until last year and obviously that wasn’t the fault of Zardes. But the wingers combined for just six goals in 2018, less than the center backs. Pedro Santos has never found his scoring since coming to the Black & Gold with just one MLS goal. The Portuguese winger gets in good spots but has not been able to finish. Justin Meram returned from Orlando and could never find the form that he had in his first stint in Columbus.
If those two can find the back of the net at any sort of regular rate for their position, the Crew will be much better offensively this year. Porter’s counter-press should help them get into positions to score, given the team will try and turn the opponent over quickly if they lose the ball in the attacking third. But the signs from Week 1 were more of the same.
TBM: So Columbus #SavedtheCrew, recap the off-field mess you guys had last year and the reaction to the Haslem’s buying the franchise.
PM: I’m not sure we have enough space on the Internet to recap everything that went down. More or less it became obvious as the fine folks involved in Save The Crew did their homework that any claims about the Crew and bad business metrics were because of a lack of effort by Anthony Precourt to make things work in Columbus. The claim that there was no interest from the city was quickly dispelled by the STC folks who got businesses all over to join their cause simply by asking. Now those companies have to put their money where their mouth is, but so far, in a short period of time, it seems most are doing that.
This was the same with ticket sales. When you don’t market your team, the average Columbus resident is unaware that you have a game. STC got thousands of people to pledge to buy season tickets if the team was saved and a very good percentage have. New team president Tim Bezbetchenko told us last week that they should eclipse the season ticket record set in 2016, the year after the Crew played in MLS Cup, here shortly. Again, it wasn’t hard to get people interested in coming to games (see the near 18,000 in the stands last week in cold, gross weather) if you put forth some effort.
Having the Haslams and Dr. Pete Edwards (who was the team doctor since 1996) running the show has been great. They are present and involved in not just the team but the community. Media day here was done at a local elementary school where the Crew is building a mini soccer field for the children and plan to build more around the city. In just the two months since the owners took over, they’ve made changes to MAPFRE Stadium that were easy (like making sure all the lights and toilets work) but made a major difference on game day.
I could go on, but I feel like you’ve got the picture.
Harrison Afful-Jonathan Mensah-Gaston Sauro-Waylon Francis
Wil Trapp Artur
Pedro Santos-Federico Higuain-Justin Meram
Injuries: Niko Hansen is out for this game with a thigh injury and Valenzuela is out for the year with an ACL tear.
Predictions: I went 1-1. I’ll be interested to see how the Crew handle New England pressure but I think they can hold for a draw.