Enthusiasm for the Columbus Crew is still high, even though the Crew have trended down since winning their second MLS Cup in team history in 2020.
The Crew averaged a franchise-best 19,237 spectators per home game last season, and that should carry over into the 2023 campaign.
That will be on full display Saturday, when Columbus has their home opener -- otherwise known as 'Crewsmas' -- against D.C. United, with a kickoff of 7:30 PM ET at Lower.com Field, a soccer-only facility that seats 20,371 people in downtown Columbus. The Crew will try to rebound from their 4-1 road defeat to the Philadelphia Union in the season opener.
Top Contenders to Win the MLS Cup
The Crew missed the playoffs in 2021 and 2022 while stalling out at 45 and 46 points, respectively. As a result, the team parted ways with head coach Caleb Porter, who ended his tenure with 52 wins, 39 draws, and 46 losses, and a championship.
WILFRIED NANCY TAKES OVER
Columbus replaced Porter with Wilfried Nancy, poaching him from Eastern Conference rival CF Montreal. The move has been widely praised. Nancy is among the best coaches in the league and was 37-17-25 in Montreal. He also finished second in Coach of the Year voting in 2022, narrowly missing out to Jim Curtin of the Union.
Nancy only departed from Montreal after getting into an altercation with the team’s owner and should get the most out of the Crew roster.
Changes didn’t stop with the coaching staff. Columbus either lost in free agency or traded away Jonathan Mensah, Artur and Pedro Santos – all of whom had over 135 appearances. In 2022, the trio accounted for 6,561 minutes, three goals and six assists. Santos and Mensah are both entering the back end of their career, but their presence will still be missed in the midfield and backline.
CUCHO WILL BE KEY
That leaves Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan as the team’s star power. Hernandez joined the club midway through the 2022 season after the Crew dished out a hefty transfer fee of $10 million. Thereafter, he tallied nine goals and three assists across 16 total games. He played all 90 minutes in the team’s season opener and is a strong bet to pace Columbus in goals.
While Cucho profiles as the goal-scorer, Zelarayan profiles as a more well-rounded playmaker, capable of setting up his teammates while also finishing things off on his own. He’s coming off a career-best 12-assist campaign in 2022 and will orchestrate the offense through the middle of the field.
Nancy has been known to trust young players with big roles on his teams, and that hasn’t changed early in his tenure with the Crew. He started several young players against the Union, including promoting Mohamed Farsi and Will Sands from reserves to starters. Each is entering their second season. Milos Degenek brings more experience and forms the backbone of the Crew defense.
The one area that likely won't change is goalkeeper, where Eloy Room will remain the locked-in starter. He missed the season opener due to visa issues but is back training and is expected to retake his post against D.C. Though he’s 34, Room has shown no signs of slowing down. In 2022, he posted career-best marks in minutes (3,060), clean sheets (nine), and saves (105). As the team works in a new back line that was leaky against the Union, Room will be a key to the team’s success – particularly early on.
CREW WON'T CONTEND, BUT ...
Given all the change this offseason, the Crew aren’t expected to challenge for a championship in 2023. Early results confirmed that expectation as they were out-classed by the Union – the Eastern Conference favorite.
But there are plenty of exciting pieces currently on the roster that should have the chance to come together and improve as the season progresses. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team sneak into the playoff bracket as a lower seed in the Eastern Conference if they can rack up at least some points during early portions of the schedule.
Saturday’s matchup against D.C. United will be a key test, and an opportunity for the Crew to pick up their first win of the season. Not only will the Crew have the benefit of their home crowd, but even after picking up a victory in their season opener with heroics in the final minutes, United is projected to be among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference and perhaps in the league as a whole.
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