The 2021 MLS regular season is officially over, culminating on Decision Day marking the end of the road for 13 MLS clubs ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. No more ambiguity: All focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
The reigning MLS Cup champions were everybody's offseason darlings. It's not easy to have a universally praised offseason after winning the championship in any salary-capped sport. Typically, undervalued guys get new contracts, other teams try to acquire the champ's talent and the cap monster comes for everyone eventually.
The Crew kept the overwhelming majority of their core and then signed the league's best available free agent (Kevin Molino), a widely respected and overqualified backup striker (Bradley Wright-Phillips, coming off 8g/6a in 1,081 minutes the year prior) plus highly-rated Romanian youth international Alexandru Matan.
I wrote a lot of kind words about the Crew heading into the season. So did my MLSsoccer.com colleagues Matt Doyle and Andrew Wiebe. So did the vast majority of journalists and analysts, both from a national and local perspective. Our season preview included predictions from 10 "experts." Eight of us put the Crew first in the East. The other two said second. They finished the season in 9th. The predictions business is silly.
It didn't work out this year. Injuries piled up, as did fixture congestion and international absences. The depth was wiped out before long and the on-field product never quite felt like it did in their run to MLS Cup in 2020. Like Toronto FC the year after winning MLS Cup in 2017, Columbus missed the playoffs.
They did win Campeones Cup, beating Cruz Azul, so the Crew did indeed pick up some hardware this season. They were afforded that opportunity from winning MLS Cup last year, a chance they were proud of. That's not nothing. But it's not anywhere near what was expected or dreamed for this squad in 2021.
Now, the offseason starts much, much sooner than expected.
This whole series is meant to be forward-looking and this question, on the surface, is not that. But diagnosing and reviewing 2021 is the start of everything for the Crew this winter. It informs every single decision.
So let's start with injuries.
- Starting center mid Artur was limited to just five starts
- Starting striker and talisman Gyasi Zardes had just 18 starts, missing time between international duty and a few minor injuries
- Starting center back Vito Wormgoor made 16 starts
- Starting left back Milton Valenzuela had 12 starts
- Key offseason addition and dynamic winger Kevin Molino made just seven starts after multiple long-term injuries
- Costa Rican international winger Luis Diaz was in and out of the lineup, with just 11 starts
- MLS Cup breakout teenager Aidan Morris suffered a season-ending ACL tear before their first MLS game
- Backup forward/Zardes insurance Bradley Wright-Phillips struggled with health then never got form
- DP Pedro Santos was fit for much of the season but spent an unfortunate amount of time at fullback (!) to compensate for other injuries
Only Darlington Nagbe, Eloy Room and Santos started 30 games this year. In addition to those three, only Lucas Zelarayan and Jonathan Mensah started 25. Those are five key players, three of which play at positions that are not rotated as often (GK, CB and CM). No matter how deep the Crew looked on paper (or, more apt for 2021, digitally on my silly Microsoft excel depth chart below), no team can deal with so much change and being without, what, at least three members of their strongest XI at any given time, if not more?
Just 10 times this season did Nagbe, Zardes, Zelarayan and Mensah all start together.
“It’s certainly frustrating when you have a plan but are never able to see the fruits of the labor and what this team could be on paper," club president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com in September. "But that’s football. ... We can’t let certain things define us. I would never just chalk it up to injuries. That’s been significant, but we need to look internally how to play better and more together, I think you’ve seen that over the last few weeks. Beyond the injuries, it’s been [fixture] congestion. It requires rotation that’s never been seen before in MLS. It’s been challenging, but we’re not going to have any excuses.”
That certainly is a difficult hurdle to clear and provides a lot of context to their underlying numbers, which have not been strong. They were fifth-worst in MLS in expected goals (43.98) and slightly below league average in expected goals against (46.15), per Opta data. Is it all injuries or something deeper?
Answering this question leads to...
The Crew have a ton of talent and pedigree on this squad. If they arrive at the conclusion that 2021 was an injury-riddled, fixture-congested or "well that's soccer I guess?" type of season, then an offseason of minor tweaks around the core is in order.
If they arrive at the conclusion that 2021 revealed flaws or cracks in the core they didn't know were there, or warning signs for future slippage, then there could be some bigger roster alterations.
Their core is still mostly in its prime. Zelarayan (29), Zardes (30), Nagbe (31), Mensah (31), Room (32) and Artur (25) are in win-now modes at this stage of their career. Santos (33) is coming to the end of his prime, but Diaz (turning 23 in December) is entering his prime.
Roster building is a fluid, ever-changing organism, but the safe money would be to expect a few additions rather than widespread change.
The Crew have proven, MLS All-Star caliber players (or better) at GK (Room), CB (Mensah), CM (Nagbe), AM (Zelarayan) and ST (Zardes). That's a good, balanced start in roster building. They seemingly have depth/decent options everywhere, but as we saw in 2021, it doesn't always pan out.
So where should they focus their offseason roster resources?
Depending on who returns defensively, another center back could be useful, ditto for a backup left back. Molino will miss the start of the season and Santos appears to be at the end of his current contract (the team did not release official information, but he had a contract option for 2021. An option year is typically the last one in a contract.) Maybe a significant addition on the wings to take some goalscoring burden off Zardes and creative pressure off Zelarayan is in the plans.
It's unclear just how many resources they'll have – nobody externally knows their allocation money situation, nor how contracts may rise or fall – but it doesn't appear to be insignificant.
Nagbe is slightly above the TAM threshold for 2021, so barring the cap moving, he can't be bought down off his DP spot. But Zardes can, per salary figures released by MLS Players' Association. That could open room for another DP or another two U22 Initiative players behind Matan. Maximum, they could sign a young DP + two U22 Initiative players in 2022.
Expect the Crew to be active.