MLS Moves: Roster makeover is imminent for Crew SC

As a mid-market team that plummeted from MLS Cup finalist also-ran in just one season, Columbus Crew SC -- like any business in a competitive industry --- is balancing risk versus reward.

The same fate befell 2015 champion Portland, which has retained its head coach and promised to invoke necessary changes in its roster. Unlike the Timbers, who were beset by departures a year ago that weren’t suitably replaced, Crew SC stuck with pretty much the same hand it played last year.

It will not stand pat this winter. It may not spend a lot but it’s likely to change significantly. Team owner Anthony Precourt has pledged his support, within limits, to upgrade a roster that finished ninth in 2015 after placing second the year before. Its points total dropped from 53 to 36, and only one team -- Orlando City -- conceded more goals than its 58.

Despite 16 goals by Ola Kamara, Crew SC could not sustain any momentum after a controversial spat between Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara triggered the latter’s trade to New England. Hobbled by a sports hernia and other injuries, Higuain hit career lows in goals (four) and assists (three).

“We want to bring in guys that we feel can contribute immediately,” sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter told “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.”

Some disgruntled fans might want that number to increase to seven or eight, but Crew SC is relatively well-stocked with solid players -- Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, Harrison Afful, Wil Trapp, Mohammed Saied -- that through breakdowns and lulls dropped points that should have been claimed.

According to Precourt, the team tried to sign a Designated Player to replace Kei Kamara last summer but was unable to do so. Higuain is the only DP though defender Gaston Sauro, signed with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) last year, earns more than the DP threshold of $457,500. Sauro’s base salary of $585,000 is second only to that of Higuain ($1.175 million) on the Crew SC roster.

Centerback Nicolai Naess joined the squad as another TAM signing in late July. A torn PCL and other injuries limited Sauro to 13 games in 2016 and with centerback partner Michael Parkhurst out of contract, Crew SC may choose to upgrade the back line along with the attack. Parkhurst’s base salary of $275,000 was less than one-half of what Sauro’s deal is worth.

“His future’s uncertain,” Berhalter said of Parkhurst, who has played more than 100 games for the club since returning to MLS in 2014 but is 32. “We made him an offer. He’s out of contract and we’re seeing how it goes. It’s a tough business. A lot of difficult decisions are made. Me and Michael are very close, but this is something where we have to see how it plays out.”

Crew SC has re-signed former Quake Adam Jahn, who scored five goals in 12 games after arriving in a July trade. Forward Conor Casey has retired. Crew SC doesn’t have much history of spending major money but Precourt, who is researching options regarding a new stadium, says he’s willing to spend what it takes to regain a competitive edge.

“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 said. “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.”

The bidding for talent is destined to increase among Eastern Conference teams, with Atlanta United FC coming into the league next year via expansion and clubs competing with the largesse of top-three finishers New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, and Toronto FC, along with ambitious Orlando City SC. The squeeze is tightening for moderate spenders such as New England, D.C. United, Philadelphia, and Crew SC.

 “In my mind, we’ve been pretty successful at finding talent for not much price,” said Berhalter. “Now we have a little more money to spend, now the pool of players grows. We’re expanding the pool of players.”

A year ago, a quiet winter induced complacency that plagued Crew SC throughout the season. This offseason will be different.

“We want to get a number of starters,” said Berhalter. “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.”

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