COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Soccer season is returning Saturday as the Columbus Crew kicks off a new era.
The Black & Gold are set to open under new coach Wilfried Nancy at the reigning Eastern Conference champion, the Philadelphia Union. The first game at Lower.com Field follows on March 4 against D.C. United.
With a new team in St. Louis, new TV deal with Apple and a new competition, Major League Soccer is arguably entering its biggest season, and the same could be said about the Crew.
A new coach, new playing style, and a veteran core of players will try to get the Crew somewhere it hasn’t been since 2020, the MLS Cup Playoffs. Here is what to know for the upcoming 2023 Columbus Crew season.
2020 title core moves on
Many core members of the team that won the 2020 MLS Cup in the COVID-19-shortened season will be debuting for new clubs. In an offseason filled with moves, the Crew traded two veterans and two others signed with new teams.
Wingers Pedro Santos and Derrick Etienne Jr., who played nine combined seasons in Columbus, both moved on, with Santos signing for D.C. United and Etienne heading to Atlanta United after a career-best season in 2022.
Brazilian midfielder Artur was traded to the Houston Dynamo, and club captain and center back Jonathan Mensah was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes. In return, the club received nearly $1 million in allocation money for future moves. These moves leave the roster in a position to bring depth and talent for the midfield and defense, with club president Tim Bezbatchenko confirming the club is searching for another center back.
The attack will be lead again by the club’s record signings Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan, who have a full season together to potentially be the top attacking duo in MLS. Darlington Nagbe is likely to lead the midfield alongside homegrown player Aidan Morris, who is fresh off his first stint with the U.S. senior team.
Eloy Room will return in net with a fairly new backline. Milos Degenek and Steven Moreira will be regular starters again, and a second center back and first-choice left back spot is up for grabs. The likes of Josh Williams, new signing Jimmy Medranda, Will Sands, and Philip Quinton will step in but the club is actively looking for more players as the current core adapts to Nancy’s tactical system.
Nancy brings new style of play
After four years under Caleb Porter, the Crew has brought in Nancy, most recently coach of CF Montreal. The first thing it starts with tactically for Nancy is being aggressive. He wants his players to “be limitless” when they play this season and said they are focused on consistency.
In his two years with Montreal, Nancy dazzled fans with a brand of possession-centric style that led into fluid attacking play and helped send Montreal to second place in the East. In both games Nancy had against Columbus, Montreal came back from behind to steal points.
That team’s conditioning and fight-back ability helped in those comebacks against the Crew and other matches last season. Nancy has attacking stars like Cucho and Zelarayan that can play his brand of attacking football, with Nagbe’s ability to possess likely to the centerpiece.
A mystery is what formation Nancy will play. Under Porter, the Crew employed a 4-2-3-1 in nearly all its matches while sometimes adapting a three-defender set-up. Under Nancy, a five-defender system with three center backs could be more common. More than likely, the full-backs will play advanced roles.
New Leagues Cup competition debuts
The MLS Cup Playoffs will be the top priority for the Crew in 2023, but in the middle of the summer, the Black & Gold could grab a new piece of hardware.
After a trip to Portland on July 15, the team will take a break from MLS play to participate in the inaugural expanded Leagues Cup tournament. For the first time, every club in MLS and Liga MX will play in a World Cup-style tournament over the course of a month.
With 47 teams in the tournament, the first round consists of a group stage where 45 of the teams were drawn into three-team groups based on 2022 standings and geographical location. The other two clubs, Los Angeles FC and Pachuca, received byes to the round of 32.
The Crew is in Central group 1 where it will host Mexican powerhouse Club America and MLS debutant St. Louis City SC. If it finishes in the top two in the group, it will advance to the single-elimination bracket of 32 teams.
This new competition is likely to add an element of drama and excitement to Crew seasons. The club has only won a single-elimination knockout tournament once, when it took the 2002 U.S. Open Cup.
Expectation: Make the playoffs
A little over two years ago, the Black & Gold hoisted the MLS Cup title after an upset of the Seattle Sounders. The past two seasons have had celebrations of that title, a new stadium, a new training facility, a record signing, and the club’s first international trophy.
Despite all there was to celebrate, fans have ended the past two years disappointed after narrow misses to the MLS Cup Playoffs, including numerous late-game collapses and draw in 2022.
With Nancy at the helm, the playoffs are the minimum expectation for the Crew in 2023. Anything after that would be considered a huge accomplishment and a massive step going forward toward consistent success.
The league has changed its playoff format, with the top nine teams in each conference qualifying. The expansion means that the eighth- and ninth-place teams in each conference will play in a wild-card game. The MLS first round will be best-of-three series’ before a single-elimination second round and semifinals.
During Tuesday’s club media day, Nancy said the target is between 13 and 15 wins to get the Crew back into the playoffs.
Oddsmakers have the Crew with the 11th-best odds of winning the title but are well behind favorites LAFC and the Union.