The 2016 preseason opened this week for Columbus Crew SC, with the team practicing briefly in central Ohio before relocating to Florida. Coach Gregg Berhalter has thus far made only minimal changes to the roster that came tantalizingly close to glory in 2015. Of the 14 players who saw the most playing time last year, only one has departed (Emanuel Pogatetz). That mark has only been reached in two previous offseasons: after the 2002 and 2009 campaigns.
Farther down the roster, however, is a different story. Of the fourteen least-used players a year ago, eight have left the club. The six holdovers include late-season additions Gaston Sauro and Cedrick Mabwati, and youngsters Chad Barson, Brad Stuver, Sergio Campbell, and Romain Gall.
Overall, the amount of turnover this offseason is lower than average – but doesn’t approach the marks set by Robert Warzycha after the 2008 and 2009 seasons. The departures from last year’s team accounted for a third of the roster (32%), and 13% of the playing time. The 2008 and 2009 offseasons, for comparison, turned over around 25% of the roster – players who had played about 10% of the previous year’s minutes.
What follows is a breakdown of the team roster at the opening of preseason. There are some intriguing possibilities emerging from the few player signings that have been announced thus far, and as always further moves could throw everything into further doubt.
Will Kei Kamara be able to repeat his goal scoring prowess from last season? Regression to the mean is always a risk when a player achieves something incredible, and Kamara is no exception. Few players have ever enjoyed a season as productive as Kamara in 2015, and fewer still have followed up with a second year to match the first. Before last year the team had seen players score ten or more goals 22 times. Of the 18 of those cases where the player returned the following year, the average goals total decreased by about five goals. The biggest drops have been by more than ten goals (Dominic Oduro scored 13 goals in 2013 before failing to score in 2014, while Jeff Cunningham dropped from 15 goals to 2 goals between 1999 and 2000).
Behind Kamara is an entirely new group of reserve forwards. Aaron Schoenfeld and Jack McInerney have both left the team, headed in opposite directions of a compass. McInerney, whose short career now includes Columbus on a list of even shorter stays, was traded to Portland. Schoenfeld, for whom Columbus had been his only tenure, signed with Maccabi Netanya in the Israeli Premier League.
A quartet of new players are vying for these vacated roster spots. At the top of this list is the somewhat surprising Conor Casey – veteran forward of three MLS clubs and four German clubs. Casey, who will celebrate his 35th birthday in late July, has a nearly unassailable goal scoring pedigree. He has scored 73 times in league and playoff games, and has scored at least 10 goals in four seasons while in Major League Soccer. His production has tapered significantly in recent years, however, and he played a paltry 340 minutes in 2015 while scoring just three goals in 14 appearances (mostly as a substitute). Joining Casey’s pursuit of a starting spot are a trio of draft picks, who will no doubt be supplemented by a cast of other trialists as the team works its way through preseason.
The task of orchestrating the midfield, and getting the ball up to Kamara (or Casey), still falls largely on Federico Higuain’s capable shoulders. While a late surprise signing is still possible, replacing the Argentine playmaker would amount to major surgery with little time to build the necessary chemistry before the season starts. Higuain will be backed up by Mohammed Saeid and Ben Swanson, although neither is a credible threat to supplant Higuain.
Emil Larsen has been the team’s most significant new player during the offseason. The Danish international left winger, however will be facing the same logjam that stymied Kristinn Steindorsson last season: Justin Meram has a stranglehold on that side of the field.
The right flank promises another struggle for playing time, here between Ethan Finlay and Cedrick Mabwati. That all four of these players are current internationals is an embarrassment of riches for Crew SC, and keeping everyone happy will not be easy. This also leaves out understudies and deeper reserves like Hector Jimenez and Romain Gall.
Holding midfield offers the best chance for a draft pick to break into the lineup. Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp are a formidable tandem, and played well enough last year that both players were called in to the US National Team this month. Mohammed Saeid is also an option here, but draft pick Rodrigo Saravia – who himself has international experience with Guatemala – may be able to grab a roster spot and compete for playing time now that Kevan George has departed.
The defensive corps has seen a bit of shuffling, but the starting group seems to be so far unchanged. Michael Parkhurst and Gason Sauro both return and will likely anchor the center of the back line, while Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis will likely run on the flanks. Behind this quartet, Chris Klute has been sent to Portland – and veteran left back Corey Ashe has been brought in from Orlando as his replacement. Ashe, who joined Houston in 2007, was a mainstay on the Dynamo back line for many years before being supplanted by DaMarcus Beasley. He joined Orlando in a mid-season trade last year and played consistently over the second half of the season, but will still face an uphill battle for playing time against the younger Francis.
The rest of the reserve defenders are a mix of veterans (Tyson Wahl at 31) and mid-career players (Chad Barson and Sergio Campbell are both 24). The team did not select a defender in the draft this year, although as with other field positions it is likely that there will be a parade of trailists throughout the preseason.
Furthest back, Steve Clark is once again expected to start in goal. While his high-profile gaffe in the first minute of MLS Cup will not soon be forgotten, his performance over the course of the season was certainly strong enough to install him as the preseason favorite over Brad Stuver. Stuver, at 24 years old, will likely be handed the Open Cup games again this season but is unlikely to be sent out on loan to Pittsburgh.