Tim Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter were damn sure to savor the Columbus Crew's 2020 MLS Cup victory, even as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted just how normal those festivities could be. Truth be told, they're still savoring it.
But with a short offseason, at some point their business of making moves and preparations for 2021 had to take over.
The goals were simple: Simultaneously retain an overwhelming majority of the Cup-winning core and find a way for meaningful improvements to challenge the starting XI and bolster depth over a 2021 season condensed with Concacaf Champions League and plenty of international fixtures, leading to expected absences for a number of key players.
“The league changes so quickly year-over-year," Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com. "You always have to be looking at ways to improve, you can never take a year off. If we want to stay at or near the top, we have to evolve the roster.”
“In looking at how we could improve, we decided with a short offseason plus the challenges of COVID with traveling and scouting, our best way to improve was to grab top free agents," Porter said. "When that list came out, we targeted those two players. We went after them. They’re big-time players, they’re plug and play. In our situation, we needed guys who could basically plug and play because we’re fighting for trophies in multiple competitions.”
Chasing the free agent pool was purposeful as well. In-person scouting remains a big struggle during the pandemic and they need not worry about visas being approved and how the players will adapt to the league.
With goals to challenge for Concacaf Champions League glory as well as for the Supporters' Shield then MLS Cup, Molino and BWP bolster the squad in that chase.
Molino is "one of the best wingers in our league"
After four seasons with Minnesota United, coming off his best season in MLS in 2020, Molino was ready for a new challenge and was among the most sought-after free agents.
The 30-year-old had nine goals and four assists in 18 regular-season appearances last year, contributing a goal or assist on average in fewer than every 100 minutes. Molino then raised his stock further with four goals in three playoff games as the Loons fell painfully short of facing the Crew in MLS Cup, squandering a 2-0 second-half lead against the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Final.
“Kevin Molino, in my opinion, is one of the best wingers in the league," Porter said. "He’s a complete game-changer.”
Molino adds to a deep winger group that includes Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. He has also played as a No. 10, giving Porter further options to rotate the team if Lucas Zelarayan needs a rest or is unavailable.
The Trinidad & Tobago international is expected to miss some MLS games on international duty, with a number of international competitions slated for 2021 including the Gold Cup, World Cup Qualifiers and more. But when the full strength squad is available, Molino will fit right in with the Cup winners.
“He really liked our players," Porter said. "He couldn’t stop talking about Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan, sometimes good players recruit good players. He liked how we played and wanted a new challenge. It was good timing.”
The Crew have Zack Steffen's transfer to Manchester City to thank in part for being able to maneuver under the salary cap for both Molino and Wright-Phillips.
“It’s pretty simple actually, we just saved," Bezbatchenko explained. "Starting in 2019 we had this ambition to win. The idea was we’d improve each window in some way as we built up toward the opening of the new stadium. Like my parents taught me in high school, you save and then you can spend it. Spending in a balanced way is prudent. It also comes from the benefit of selling a player like Zack Steffen. … How do you go about spending the allocation received in that deal? We decided to hold off and not spend it all at once.”
Signing Wright-Phillips "was a no-brainer"
While Molino is likely a starter, Wright-Phillips will be behind Gyasi Zardes in the striker depth chart.
Wright-Phillips is one of the league's all-time leading scorer and, though he turns 36 in March, he proved with LAFC last season that he's still got plenty left in the tank, with eight goals and six assists in just 1,081 minutes.
“It’s hard not to like Bradley Wright-Phillips, he’s done so well in our league," Bezbatchenko said. "Every team would be interested in having him. It was a no-brainer in a lot of ways.”
Wright-Phillips is ready to embrace a more rotational role, both Bezbatchenko and Porter said, though he'll be getting plenty of minutes and opportunities during the season.
“Everybody knows Bradley, everybody knows the top domestic players," Porter said. "We felt like if we were going to compete for multiple trophies, we needed not a one-two, but two number ones at center forward. We’ll have players leaving for international duty, so it was important to secure a starting-caliber center forward. He’s not going to play every game, but when he does play, we need a guy who will score goals and fit our profile.”
Porter doesn't expect to alter the club's preferred 4-2-3-1 to start both together often, though.
“I mean, I think they’re both No. 9s," Porter said. "For me, that’s always a debate: How do you get two No. 9s on the field? Well, two No. 9s usually don’t play really well together. I’ve always wanted two strong No. 9s, you can start one and bring the other on, but with the compacted schedule and international duty, you’re going to need to rotate guys. Is it out of the realm of possibility to play them both together? On occasion, we might, but you know, we have a system that works. If you start both, now who comes off the bench? How do you rotate? And by the way, if you start two No. 9s, their roles change. Neither one are a two-striker guy. They’re better when they play alone.”