Wil Trapp laughs with Crew SC teammate Michael Parkhurst
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Crew SC begin partial rebuild as Higuain returns, but Parkhurst "not close"

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It appears that the offseason of Columbus Crew SC will fall somewhere between a rebuilding project and last year’s strategy of consistency and stability.

The club announced decisions on players with contract options last week, bringing back a solid core of players like Justin Meram, Wil Trapp, Nicolai Naess and Federico Higuain. But they also declined options on Steve Clark and Corey Ashe, while team captain Michael Parkhurst remains out of contract with no deal in place.

Head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter’s decisions leave the team with just 20 players on the roster at present, including two forwards, two goalkeepers and just four defenders. And while Higuain – the team’s only Designated Player – represents a large portion of salary, Berhalter now has eight roster spots and a significant amount of cap space for retooling purposes.

Berhalter’s war chest will be bolstered this year, according to both the coach and Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt, who told MLSsoccer.com to “expect us to be aggressive this offseason.” With that space and funding, Berhalter said there are moves ready to be made.

“We’re looking at that now,” he said. “The resources are there. I still think we want to be mindful of how the money is spent, but we certainly want to bring in talent that’s going to help us improve on the field.”

Likely the biggest decision of Berhalter’s offseason so far was Higuain. The aging playmaker turned 32 in October and dealt with injuries all season, including a midseason hernia surgery that resulted in complications for the remainder of the year.

Even in early November, Berhalter was unsure of what he would do about Higuain, saying, “if a guy makes money like he does, you need to be on the field,” and declining to commit to the Argentinian returning for his sixth season in Columbus.

But after picking up Higuain’s contract option, Berhalter sounded confident.

“I think this one injury accounted for a lot of his time missed,” Berhalter said. “We’re confident he’s past this injury. We’re confident that he’s going to come back next year stronger and better than he has been in the past.

“He’s still a very productive player, in terms of chances created, key passes and dictating the tempo of our game. He’s a guy that we believe in and we believe is going to have a very good year next year.”

Without Parkhurst and others in the picture – Berhalter said the club and its former captain are “not close to a deal” – the club is as thin as ever on defense, especially given the uncertain status of the oft-injured Gaston Sauro.

Berhalter says he plans to rebuild a defensive unit that gave up the second-most goals in MLS last season.

“We’re aware of the situation with where our back line stands right now,” he said. “It’s about evaluating talent and looking to bring a number of players in to bolster the back line.”