In 2014, Columbus Crew Soccer Club showed all of the signs of being a team on the verge of a breakout. Under head coach Gregg Berhalter’s tutelage, they turned themselves into one of the most exciting teams in the league, utilizing a high-risk, high-reward attacking mindset that pushed numbers towards the opponent’s goal at every opportunity. Emerging stars like Wil Trapp and Ethan Finlay sat at the core of a team whose ceiling seemed almost as high as their flank-bombing full-backs.
In 2015, Columbus lived up to the expectations built on the previous season. The signing of striker Kei Kamara from Middlesbrough made all the difference on the attacking end – Kamara provided the punch Columbus lacked the year before, tying for the league lead with 22 goals. A second-place finish in the Eastern Conference preceded a playoff run that ended with a loss, at home, in the MLS Cup final.
In 2016, Crew SC will be eyeing the next step: winning it all.
The Big Question
Can Kei Kamara do it again? Kamara’s stunning season was everything Crew SC could have imagined when they lured him back from England. He tied for the league lead in goals and lost out on the Golden Boot via tiebreaker. He finished second in the MVP voting. His influence, if not direct goalscoring, helped Columbus win their way to the MLS Cup final – a game they hosted for the first time in history in front of a sold-out crowd in a suddenly soccer-mad city.
Can he do it again? It would help if the Sierra Leonean was settled. As of this writing Kamara is reportedly engaged in a contract dispute with the club. Having outperformed his contract in 2015, and surveying an MLS that is paying others millions for lesser contributions to their teams, Kamara is (perhaps rightfully) upset about his salary. Though he hasn’t skipped any of the team’s preparations – and indeed settled right back into the goalscoring groove in the MLS-heavy Desert Diamond Cup preseason tournament – it’s an issue the team will likely have to deal with as soon as possible.
It’s tempting to just focus on Kamara and his goalscoring, but the growth of Wil Trapp in the center of the Crew SC midfield has played a big part in the club’s rise to being one of the best sides in the league. The homegrown midfielder just turned 23 in January and is already a leader, both on and off the field. With a bright future in the U.S. national team on the horizon, even more eyes will be on Trapp as Columbus aims themselves towards a second consecutive MLS Cup final berth in 2016.
Trapp’s passing abilities set him apart. He rarely makes mistakes, but it’s not that he never takes risks; from his deep position the midfielder is capable of game-changing passes that open things up on the flanks for a team so adept at using them. While he’s not yet the defensive presence that might turn him from star to superstar, his improving strength and bite has him on that path.
Growing into himself and playing alongside a host of savvy veterans (including former USMNT defender Michael Parkhurst), his rise to prominence as one of the best deep-lying central midfielders in the league has been one of the league’s best stories over the past few years.
From The Dugout
Having fallen just short of MLS Cup glory in 2015, Columbus are determined to climb the mountain again – and coach Gregg Berhalter sees no reason to abandon his commitment to an expansive, pass-happy philosophy. “We represent a playing style and we think it's attractive to watch, and creates goalscoring opportunities, and we're comfortable with that.
“Hopefully this is going to be a better team,” added the 42-year-old. “A lot is going to depend on that. We added good pieces that we feel will add to the quality of the group. But then it's also the mentality of the group: Do we want more? Are we willing to push for more, and try to be more successful? We're going to keep pushing and hopefully be better than we were last year.”
The Crew haven’t topped the regular-season standings since 2009, and although expectations are high, Berhalter knows how tough a task that is. “It's a difficult challenge. I know we believe in our group, we believe in the talent that we have, but to win the Supporters' Shield is extremely difficult.
“One of our strengths last year was consistency – we didn't go but twice, I don't think, with losing two games in a row [ie Crew SC only lost two or more games consecutively on two occasions in 2015]. So we kept a consistent level, and now it's going to be about maintaining that and even exceeding those levels. It says a lot that those are things we're talking about – it says a lot about this group and their motivation.”
From The Locker Room
Losing any final is tough; losing the 2015 MLS Cup Final at home hit captain Michael Parkhurst hard. “You put so much into it over 11 months – physically, emotionally, it’s really draining,” he said. “We have to motivate the guys to come back from the loss.
“(Winning MLS Cup) is going to take even more work than last year, with the long season, the play-in game. That’s the nature of the beast, but that’s why you play the game. In the end, we’ll be alright.” The veteran defender now looks to mentor young prospects like Trapp and Finley: “I have to lead by example on and off the field.”
Crew coach Berhalter has implemented a pass-heavy style that rather stands out in MLS. “Gregg’s got a real professionalism about him in everything he does,” said Parkhurst. “Tactically, we play a lot different than most teams in MLS. They’ve instilled that into us as players. A lot of guys had their careers take an uptick since they’ve been there. That’s a little easier to do when you have a good system in place.”
This is Home
- MAPFRE STADIUM
- CAPACITY: 20,145
- OPENED: May 15, 1999
- LOCATION: Columbus, OH
Fan’s Insider Tip
John Zidar (@TheZidar): The area directly surrounding the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where Mapfre Stadium is located, is largely devoid of restaurants and bars in which antsy soccer fans can congregate. Never one to back down in face of adversity, the Crew supporters have developed a matchday tradition that they've affectionately dubbed the MEGATAILGATE. This joint effort by all of the supporters groups has revitalized a stagnating tailgate environment and served to bring the fanbase closer together.
In the center of the parking-lot wasteland, this oasis serves as a one-stop shop for all your pre-game needs. Get warmed up with a game of cornhole before swinging past Yellow Nation Army's tent, where each week they sling drinks from their full-service bar and tasty grub off the grill, all in line with their theme of the week. Then get your dance on and shotgun a beer with the Murder's Row members before the smell of La Turbina's cookout draws you over.
No tailgate is complete without grabbing some merch from Crew Supporters Union. So hot right now! And if ever you find your cup empty, rest assured the Hudson Street Hooligans will fill it. Every game day, the biggest party in Columbus takes place right where you'd expect... the house that Lamar built!