Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter shouts instructions vs. Toronto FC
USA Today

Columbus Crew SC fill immediate needs with summer moves as they look to become "top team in the East"

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the latter stages of the 2014 season, Columbus Crew SC head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter added four pieces: Emanuel Pogatetz, Kei Kamara, Romain Gall and Ben Swanson.

Pogatetz played 52 minutes in the remainder of the season, Kamara was not permitted to play for the team until 2015, Gall notched 43 substitute minutes and then-17-year-old Swanson has yet to make his MLS debut.

During this summer transfer window, Berhalter has taken action that will likely shape the rest of this season for the club.

In just eight days, the Crew SC added fullback Harrison Afful, striker Jack McInerney and center back Gastón Sauro, bolstering a club that suffered perhaps its worst defeat of the Berhalter era in a 5-2 blowout at the hands of Orlando City on Saturday.

Berhalter simply said the timing was right for his new signings.

“In this case, when you’re dealing with competitive European markets, timing is everything,” he said. “These guys had offers in Europe and had chances to go to other teams, and we had to act now, and it was something where we were comfortable doing so. We had the space, and we had the ability to do that.”

Adding to the glee of Crew SC fans is the sense that the signings are not just about depth or cultivating talent; they are signings in positions of need.

Afful, who was signed July 30, represents the replacement for Argentinian fullback Hernan Grana, who left the club due to homesickness.

“There’s no secret that we were looking for a right back replacement when Hernan left,” Berhalter said. “We looked, literally, all over the world and had a lot of conversations and worked through a list and came to Harrison.”

McInerney, meanwhile, replaces the traded Adam Bedell in the club’s striker depth chart. With 36 goals in a six-year MLS career, the 23-year-old has much greater credentials than Bedell or previous backup forward Aaron Schoenfeld, and Berhalter said he has been eyeing McInerney for some time.

“Jack is a guy that I’ve been following for years,” he said. “He’s a guy that I wanted to bring over to Sweden with me, and I’ve been keeping tabs on him. We know his quality, and we know what he can do in this league. I think the age profile is great, and he’s a goalscorer and has good qualities in front of goal.”

Sauro is perhaps the highest-profile acquisition of the window for Columbus. The Argentine defender spent five years with Boca Juniors before moving to Basel, where he made his club debut in the UEFA Champions League. He later went on loan to Italian Serie B side Catania.

In his case, Berhalter said, the move was one the Crew SC could not pass up.

“Gaston is a case where you don’t know exactly the timing of it, because he’s tied up in contract,” Berhalter said. “You don’t know what Basel is thinking, and you have to work through some of that. But he was a player that was identified as coming from a club that plays a similar style to ours and could potentially fit.”

But bringing in a 25-year-old with potential and Champions League experience was not easy.

“It was a recruitment process,” Berhalter said. “He’s at the age where it’s not common that guys come to MLS when you’re there in Europe at a big club, a Champions League club. It did take convincing, but in the end I think he’s a guy who’s going to do well here. He saw that future, and he sees what MLS is about now, and in the end I think that’s what persuaded him.”

While the trio of acquisitions might not steal headlines from arrivals like Andrea Pirlo or Frank Lampard, Berhalter said acquiring players in their prime shows that MLS is not a retirement league – at least not for his club.

“That’s the profile we look for,” he said. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t welcome a Pirlo or a Lampard, but that’s not the profile we look for. We look for guys that we can develop, that we can potentially re-sell, and these guys fit that bill.”

Berhalter admits that Columbus now have more flexibility and depth than at the beginning of the season. But does that mean he expects more?

“I think what’s happening is most teams are strengthening in this summer window,” he said. “We have expectations to be a top team in the East, and that’s how it is. So if these guys can help us do that, that’s great. It’s not saying we couldn’t have done that with the group we had, but we want to strengthen the team at all times.”