By: Colin Buesser
Columbus spent the 2019 season with various ups and downs, but ultimately failed to reach the playoffs and had a pretty disappointing campaign. Despite their 2019 woes, Columbus’ roster changes have led to a squad that is not just improved, but has a sense of completion and consistency. Here is why the Crew will make the playoffs in 2020:
One of the glaring holes in their lineup last year was the sidelined young DP Milton Valenzuela. While he missed the entire season with an injury, his 2018 campaign saw him produce 1 goal and 6 assists in over 2500 minutes of quality defensive play. Harrison Afful is a brilliant attacking fullback, but what makes the Crew so dangerous is having elite attacking fullbacks on both flanks, which they lacked under Francis and Jimenez on the left.
Speaking of defenders, the Crew are currently sitting with the strongest CB depth in the league. After having brought in presumed starter Vito Wormgoor, they have myriad options to pair alongside him. Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, and Axel Sjöberg are all experienced defenders who have demonstrated solid quality at different times in their careers. The beauty of this situation is that while Sjöberg may not return to the quality we saw in his best days with the Rapids, or if Williams loses the form he had last year (1200+ minutes in a top-10 defense), there is truly a rotation of options. Not to mention 19 year old Aboubacar Keita.
The other missing piece last year was a solid No. 10 for the duration of the season. Federico Higuain managed 1133 minutes while struggling with injuries throughout the season, while still racking up 1 goal and 5 assists. This led to Pedro Santos ending up in an unnatural central role at some points. Lucas Zelarayán is a player who is not necessarily an experienced goalscorer, but who has the technical quality to pull the strings in the midfield at a high level. This will allow Zardes and Santos some support, as the pair scored 24/37 of the club’s goals in 2019. If Santos can become an asset on the wing without being the guy, then we are looking at a multidimensional attacking midfield that also includes Luis Diaz, who managed a goal/assist every 133 minutes.
What else can you say about Darlington Nagbe except that he makes every team that he plays for better? The departure of Wil Trapp will hurt the hearts of Crew fans more than it will the team’s record. Do not get me wrong, Trapp is a very strong player, but Nagbe offers even more quality. With Nagbe and Artur playing behind a diverse attacking midfield and in front of a potential top-5 defense, we are looking at an optimal lineup with no gaps. This position however is the only one on the roster besides the CAM that is lacking high quality depth.
The Crew should feel confident heading into this season with a balanced squad and a rock solid defense. It is the ever unpredictable league of MLS, but one prediction you can sign me up for is Columbus in the playoffs.