When Tim Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter took charge of Columbus Crew SC ahead of the 2019 season, the pair of decorated MLS veterans inherited an interesting roster.
There was Gyasi Zardes, reborn in Columbus, as well as defenders Jonathan Mensah, Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela, to name a few. The group had success in years prior but were in need of a refresh.
In short order, the Crew have arrived at 2020 MLS Cup against the Seattle Sounders.
“We were excited about the roster we had coming in, but it’s taken two or three steps to get here,” Bezbatchenko told media on a virtual press conference. “We’ve done it quickly, and I’m proud of the group for doing that, but if you were within these walls in the last 20 months, you’d realize it’s a little more of a transformation than those on the outside see.”
Their first season didn't go smooth. A decent start lulled by a run of one win in 16 games, helping fuel the start of their transformation that summer.
The work done that window, then accelerated this winter, is why the Crew have found themselves in MLS Cup.
We’ll never know truly all the work that went on behind closed doors. It wasn’t as simple a process of just adding one guy, or magically implementing tactical and cultural tweaks. But we do know the final on-field product as conducted in the transfer market. No period was more important in that regard than those two transfer windows and how quickly they re-loaded to legitimate Cup contenders is admirable.
“We weren’t one or two pieces away from (contending)," Bezbatchenko told media on a virtual press conference. "I don’t think it’s a matter of one or two pieces, it was about finding difference-makers. When the lights are shining brightest, do you have players who can step up and make plays?”
2019 Secondary Transfer Window
Key additions: GK Eloy Room, wingers Luis Diaz and Younes Mokhtar
Goalkeeper Eloy Room helped anchor a Columbus defense that was one of the top units in MLS in 2020. | USA Today Sports
Bezbatchenko and Porter didn't officially take over in Columbus until January 4 of 2019, giving the pair little room in the offseason to make major change ahead of preseason. Columbus signed Brazilian winger Robinho, inked Aboubacar Keita to a homegrown contract and then traded for Waylon Francis after Valenzuela went down with an injury.
As Porter further instilled his preferred tactics trying to work through a barren run of form, Bezbatchenko got his first real transfer window. Far below the playoff line when the window reopened, the Crew began setting up for the future.
In came Room, Diaz and Mokhtar.
All three immediately made an impact, with Room the unquestioned starting GK after Zack Steffen left for Manchester City while Diaz, in particular, provided a spark to the attack.
The Crew ended the season losing just two of their final 13 games.
“You’ve seen that evolution from mid-season last year on," Porter said. "The narrative is that last year was a terrible year, but I remind people I think we lost two games in 14 from midseason last year. When you look at how we hit the ground running this year, that already happened last year.”
Columbus knew they had a strong team, they just needed to elevate the top of the roster. They took two huge swings in the winter to do just that.
2020 Primary Transfer Window
Key additions: Midfielders Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe and defender Vito Wormgoor
Lucas Zelarayan has established himself as one of the league's most dynamic playmakers in his first MLS season. | USA Today Sports
As the Sounders were preparing for MLS Cup last year, the Crew were well into their offseason. Reports broke before Cup that the Crew acquired Darlington Nagbe from Atlanta United, reuniting the press-resistant midfielder with Porter.
Porter points to Nagbe’s excellent technical ability and quality in possession as a reason he was “exactly the kind of player” the club wanted. Bezbatchenko noted Nagbe’s been a winner everywhere he’s been: He won an NCAA title with Akron, MLS Cup with Portland and three trophies with Atlanta (MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Campeones Cup).
“When you look at the players we brought in, we were methodical about it,” Porter said. “We knew exactly what we wanted, we knew we had players we could build off of but needed some tweaks.”
The crown-jewel and final piece of the club’s transformation was Zelarayan.
Columbus were in the market for a game-changing attacking piece and had plenty of financial clout behind them. In their interviews before taking their jobs, both Bezbatchenko and Porter knew they would have the budget for such a signing. They needed to wait for the right moment and right player.
Zelarayan was just that.
“We knew he was a hell of a good player," Bezbatchenko said. "I remember the moment Caleb came in to watch some film, his eyes lit up. We had a number of targets we were looking at, but Lucas in particular he responded differently. When you’re able to land that player who helps fulfill the vision of the coach and helps your club move to the next level is satisfying.”
The 28-year-old was a regular with Tigres UANL, perhaps the most decorated club in North America over the last few years.
Zelarayan has so far lived up to the price tag, with six goals and four assists in just over 1,000 regular season minutes as well as four assists in the Crew’s three playoff wins.
It wasn’t as simple as just a few signings that fueled the Crew’s run to Cup, but these two windows were the most important on that front.