COLUMBUS, Ohio – After an agonizing runner-up finish in the 2015 MLS Cup, Gregg Berhalter decided to bring back the majority of his Columbus Crew SC squad for 2016 to take another run at the title.
That plan backfired, resulting in a team that Berhalter called “complacent” and a deeply disappointing ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
As he faces his next offseason, the Columbus head coach and sporting director isn’t mincing words. The 2017 Crew SC roster will be revamped.
“We want to bring in quality,” Berhalter said. “We want to bring in guys that we feel can contribute immediately. That being said, we most likely want to bring in guys that we feel can start right away, and that’s a different mindset than we had last year. On opening day next year, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll see four new starters.”
When asked to clarify, Berhalter doubled down on the idea of new starters. He said he expects those four starters to be different on day one, not eventual contributors that he thinks can work into a starting role.
After the midseason trade of Kei Kamara, Columbus spent the rest of the season as one of the only teams in the league without two Designated Players. Their one remaining DP, Federico Higuain, missed most of the second half of the season after a hernia surgery and other ailments.
Crew SC have never been the big spenders of some larger-market squads, but club owner Anthony Precourt hinted at a bit more leeway in his checkbook this offseason.
“I was on the record saying we were open to [a second DP] during the summer transfer window, when we worked really hard to try to sign a designated player,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “We remain open to that, and we’re hopeful that will happen. It needs to be the right player and the right position and the right economics. We’ve been aggressive with TAM – it’s not all about DPs anymore – and we’ll continue to be in this upcoming offseason. I can tell you, expect us to be aggressive this offseason. We need to improve our roster.”
Berhalter said that vote of confidence from Precourt shows that the owner is “committed to building a strong team.” And for the team’s sporting director, that means a larger net to cast in finding talent.
“There is the flexibility now that your search is expanded because of the new parameters,” Berhalter said. “I think that’s the important thing. In my mind, we’ve been pretty successful at finding talent for not much price. Now we have a little more money to spend, now the pool of players grows. We’re expanding the pool of players.”
But the expanded search doesn’t guarantee a DP, though Berhalter said he and Precourt are both ready to pull the trigger on one if the situation is right.
“We look at everything, every option,” he said. “If the name is big, the quality needs to be big and the contribution needs to be big. We’ve seen throughout the league that big names don’t win titles, necessarily. You look at Dallas’ Supporters’ Shield or the Red Bulls’ Supporters’ Shield last year, it’s done with the collective, not necessarily a big name.”
Precourt agreed. He said he and Berhalter “think about having the best 11,” while other teams think about having marquee names. A signing still has to fit the team’s “system and financial framework” to make sense.
That said, Berhalter doesn’t expect a season of bargain-bin acquisitions.
“We want to get a number of starters,” he said. “If that means spending money, that’s what we’ll do. If that means not spending money, that’s what we’ll do. It’s hard to get quality. You normally have to spend for it. So my guess is that we’ll be hitting the market and making some moves that will make us better.”