After an MLS Cup loss that was as shocking as it was disappointing, Gregg Berhalter has wasted no time to making moves in preparation for Crew SC’s 2016 campaign. Fullback Chris Klute and striker Jack McInerney have already been traded to the cup-winning Portland Timbers for an undisclosed amount of general allocation money. Also leaving Columbus are goalkeeper Matt Lampson, midfielders Kristin Steindorsson, Kevan George, Ben Speas and forward Aaron Schoenfeld. In their place, Crew SC have added defenders Corey Ashe and Amro Tarek, Danish winger Emil Larsen, as well as forwards Conor Casey and Ola Kamara . The front office also signed 19th overall SuperDraft pick Rodrigo Saravia.
As a testament to Crew SC’s progression with Berhalter at the helm, there are no glaring weaknesses in the lineup heading into 2016. Each player in the starting lineup has been put into a position that both compliments their own strengths and those of the players around them. Even with new arrival Kei Kamara scoring 26 goals in all competitions, Crew SC’s whole became better than the sum of its parts in 2015. Berhalter’s relentless trust in his possession-based, attacking tactics has created a consistent set of expectations for each role on the field. This consistency has helped depth options like Mohammad Saied, Cedrick Mabwati and Tyson Wahl seamlessly fill in for regular starters.
Looking back at the Crew’s starters in the MLS Cup Final and the roster now, opening day will more than likely feature the identical an identical 11 or one very similar barring any preseason injuries. While this should help Crew SC hit the ground running in 2016, the double-edged sword of the successful previous campaign is the inevitability of bigger clubs looking to poach Crew SC’s young stars and productive veterans. Though the core of the roster is set to return, complacency is a recipe for disaster in an MLS steadily growing in quality, funding and influence. Because of this, the squad that took Crew SC to the club’s second MLS Cup Final will more than likely look quite a bit different by the end of their next campaign.
Below is a ranking of Crew SC’s MLS Cup starting 11, beginning with those most likely to assume their role throughout 2016 and ending with with the most likely to move on from Columbus or be demoted from starter.
1. Michael Parkhurst
Captain, seasoned veteran and conductor of Crew SC’s defense and possession out of the back, Parkhurst has cemented his role at CB for two seasons while partnering a revolving door of players in the same position during that time. Parkhurst will be 32 at the start of next season and will be beyond most opportunities for national team call-ups or transfer to a bigger club. Having failed four times to lift the MLS cup on the biggest stage, Crew SC remains his best chance to do so. Parkhurst’s leadership has been one of the biggest factors in Crew SC’s turnaround, and with full confidence from Berhalter, the position is his to lose for the next few years.
2. Federico Higuain
The franchise’s second and only current DP was instrumental in the team’s playoff run. A strong case can be made that Federico Higuain was his team’s playoff MVP for his work-rate and discipline across each leg. Throughout the regular season, the man they call Pipa orchestrated one of the most potent attacks in MLS. Without a serious challenger for the Argentine’s starting spot, injury should be the only variable keeping Higuain, 31, out of his midfield role. Look for Crew SC to rely on Pipa heavily this Summer when the roster scatters for international competitions.
3. Waylon Francis
Since his arrival in 2014, the Costa Rican international has been a prototype fullback under Berhalter’s system, leading him to be considered by some as the best left back in MLS. At 25, Francis could pique the interest of lower-first or second tier clubs in Europe and South America, but his performances have made him an integral, maybe irreplaceable part of Crew SC’s attack by assisting more goals than any defender in MLS. Francis already is regular member on Costa Rica’s roster and though his minutes are sparse, he was the youngest defender on their World Cup qualifying roster and should hit his stride by Russia 2018. This means he wouldn’t necessarily need to leave Columbus in search of minutes elsewhere and Francis could be Crew SC’s most important core piece for the future.
4. Steve Clark
Statistically, Steve Clark declined from his first to second season with Columbus. How much this can be blamed on him, though, is up for debate. Crew SC’s defense has struggled at times to find an identity, leaving Clark to face relentless pressure. The Crew’s most unnerving defensive statistic was Clark seeing 15 more shots from 2014 to 2015 while giving up 11 more goals. This shows Clark either performed significantly worse in 2015, or, more likely, dealt with better opponent opportunities as a result of defensive disorganization. Either way, Clark is unquestionably the Crew’s top man in goal, but will have to improve to keep his team in the running for the Supporter’s Shield.
5. Kei Kamara
What more can be said. 26 goals in all competitions. MLS Works Humanitarian of the Year and MLS MVP runner-up Kei Kamara brought it all together for Crew SC this year. By elevating the performance of his teammates and at times acting as the team’s best set-piece defender, Kamara was easily Crew SC’s best player and most impactful signing since Guillermo Barros Schelotto. His 2015 campaign will surely gain the attention of scouts globally, but his decision to retire from the Sierra Leone national team and recent comments that he would have retired had he won the Cup indicate he plans on staying in Columbus to win something, at least for the immediate future. Also, Crew SC’s possession of a handful of younger, promising prospects should leave fan-favorite Kamara as the piece that Berhalter uses to build upon the club’s momentum instead of immediately getting a return on. That being said, inability of the two sides to agree on a contract may ruin the mood in Columbus.
6. Harrison Afful
Now that a winter rumor of Afful’s departure was squashed, the Ghanaian looks to be staying with the team for at least the better part of 2016. Afful shined in the RB role after joining Columbus midseason, replacing Hernan Grana who shocked the club with his departure after only appearing in 7 games. Afful will immediately step in as perhaps the best right back in MLS, but fans may have reason to be anxious given recent turnover of starting defenders under Berhalter’s control. Newly acquired depth at fullback could compel Berhalter to cash in on Afful for the right price.
7. Gaston Sauro
Crew SC’s biggest question mark going into the postseason was if their defense could keep the league’s best offenses in check across an entire two-game series. Sauro had only appeared in 4 matches before the post season but seemed to fit in well next to Parkhurst. What happened next made Sauro an immediate fan-favorite. Completely shutting down red-hot Didier Drogba across two games was possibly the biggest individual accomplishment for a Crew SC player in the playoffs. Columbus fans will eagerly awaiting to see what the soon to be 26 year old CB has in store for 2016. Still, Sauro’s rise may be too reminiscent of former CB Giancarlo Gonzalez. Berhalter was able to secure a record fee for Gonzalez after his impressive run with Costa Rica in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Sauro is at a similar age where he could rise to this height and command an irresistible fee. He’s also yet to play 10 matches for the eastern conference champs and may yet fizzle out like his predecessor, Emmanuel Pogatetz.
8. Ethan Finlay
Finlay has excelled in Berhalter’s system, which has taken his career from the bench to the national team in just two seasons. Scoring 23 goals, assisting 20 times and tirelessly outworking his competition has caught the eye of the league and USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann. Finlay will be under pressure from wingers Cedrick Mabwati and Emil Larsen, but Ethan should dominate the right side for the foreseeable future. The biggest concern regarding Finlay is the possibility of him using his momentum to move abroad. If Finlay wants to make a move outside MLS, he will need to very soon as he is already entering the prime of his career. If not, Crew SC have done well to work out a contract extension with the winger, and language from both parties suggest an expectation that he will remain in Columbus well beyond 2016.
9. Wil Trapp
Trapp’s ascension has more or less lived up to the expectations put on him since he signed a homegrown contract with Crew SC in 2012. Another successful campaign has put him on track to be regularly featured in the USMNT very soon. The hometown favorite has become such staple in the Crew lineup that his value is sometimes more evident when he doesn’t play. On the field, Trapp acts as both quarterback and defensive back by unlocking defenses with precise passes from distance and thwarts opposing attacks with great defensive positioning. Trapp’s youth and potential make him the most likely Crew SC player to draw interest from bigger clubs. Columbus’ ability to keep him will be a testament to how well the franchise and league compare to their counterparts overseas.
10. Tony Tchani
Tchani’s story is very similar to Ethan Finlay’s. The Crew midfielder made it into the starting lineup with New York Red Bulls, who drafted him in 2010. Tcahni was then traded to Toronto, then subsequently to the Crew. Tchani did not have a consistent presence in the Crew lineup at first but like Finlay, he found a role that made the most of his skillset under Berhalter. Tchani also earned his first international call-up with the U.S. in January. Tchani’s spot is secure for the time being, but Crew SC may look to improve the position at some point. This would have to be done with great caution though, as Tchani’s physicality and chemistry with Trapp make him near irreplaceable at the moment.
11. Justin Meram
Meram did not have quite the same season statistically in 2015 than he did in 2014, but his role in Crew SC’s championship run should not go unnoticed. Much less pressure was put on Meram as a goal scorer with the addition of Kei Kamara, but his versatility helped him record 28 starts on the left wing, only missing starts for his international commitment with Iraq, rest or a first game suspension. At this time last season, pundits wondered if Meram would be demoted in favor of new signing Kristin Steindorsson Steindorsson failed to impress Berhalter though, leaving the spot Meram’s to lose for the rest of the season. Even as mid-season acquisition Cedrick Mabwati impressed in his appearances, there was little incentive to tinker with Crew’s high-octane attack. Meram’s ability to dribble in tight spaces and create danger from the left complement and balance Finlay’s pace and unlocking runs on the right. Still, Meram could very well find himself on the outside looking in for 2016 if Mabwati evolves from his super sub label, or if Larsen makes an early impression on Berhalter. It is important to note that Meram also assumed a super sub role with great success in 2014. Meram’s comments after losing the MLS Cup Final did not exactly inspire confidence in the longevity of his Crew career either. Still, until further notice Meram is at the top of the left wing depth chart for opening day.