Major League Soccer

Columbus Crew 2022 MLS season preview: Tactics, predicted XI, predictions

Chris Smith
The Crew will be looking to bounce back in 2021.
The Crew will be looking to bounce back in 2021. /

After missing out on the MLS Cup Playoffs entirely in 2021, the Columbus Crew returns this year looking to make amends.

Winning MLS Cup in 2020 was always going to raise expectations, but juggling Concacaf Champions League commitments, moving to their new Field stadium, and balancing a number of serious injuries proved too much.

Given the talent within their ranks, supporters won't suffer another failure from Caleb Porter - the 2021 Campeones Cup success only glossed over so much.

So, here's everything you need to know about the Columbus Crew ahead of the new MLS season, including tactics, key players, and predictions.

How did Columbus Crew perform in 2021?

As mentioned, the Crew totally flopped in 2021, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point below the Playoff line with only 13 wins from 34 regular-season games.

The likes of Gyasi Zardes, Artur, Aiden Morris, and Kevin Molino all spent extended periods on the sidelines, while there was a decent amount of disruption due to international call-ups. Caleb Porter also maintained a level of goodwill from the MLS Cup success a year prior.

The nadir of Columbus' 2021 was a run of eight defeats from nine games between late July and mid-September, right when that injury crisis was at its worst. It was a run that all but ended their Playoff hopes and one that likely won't be tolerated again this year.

Columbus Crew transfer activity

Transfers in

  • Yaw Yeboah (from Wisla Krakow, $2.2m)
  • Milos Degenek (from Red Star, free transfer)
  • Jalil Anibaba (from Nashville SC, free transfer)
  • Federico Higuain (from Inter Miami, free transfer)*
  • Jake Morris (from Fighting Camels, free transfer)
  • Will Sands (from Georgetown, free transfer)
  • Sean Zawadzki (from Georgetown, free transfer)
  • Brady Scott (from Austin FC, free transfer)
  • Jacob Erlandson (SuperDraft)
  • Patrick Schulte (SuperDraft)
  • James Igbekeme (from Real Zaragoza, loan)

* Federico Higuain is re-joining on a one-day contract on April 2 to officially retire as a Columbus Crew player.

Transfers out

  • Aboubacar Keita (to Colorado Rapids, $300k)
  • Sebastian Berhalter (to Vancouver Whitecaps, $50k)
  • Milton Valenzuela (to FC Lugano, free transfer)
  • Vito Wormgoor (to IK Start, free transfer)
  • Waylon Francis (to Herediano, free transfer)
  • Harrison Afful (to Charlotte FC, free transfer)
  • Eric Dick (to Minnesota United, free transfer)
  • Grant Lillard (to Loudoun United, free transfer)
  • Saad Abdul-Salaam (released)
  • Bradley Wright-Phillips (released)

Caleb Porter: Tactics and style of play

During his time with the Crew, Porter almost exclusive stuck to 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations.

Most often, a ball-winner will sit deep in midfield, allowing the full-backs the freedom to get forward and provide width in the attack*. Darlington Nagbe, meanwhile, is charged with both playing through the press and progressing the ball with his excellent passing, running ability, and composure.

Lone striker Gyasi Zardes is supported by a creative No.10 and two inside forwards who will get close to combine with the USMNT goalscorer.

As Porter himself alluded to during an in-game interview last season, the Crew are at their best when they control possession, moving the opposition around to create gaps and chances to switch play.

* There is a huge gap to fill at left-back following the departure of Milton Valenzuela. Much could hinge on how the Crew handle this in the transfer market.

Columbus Crew predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Room; Diaz, Degenek, Mensah, Moreira; Nagbe Artur; Yeboah, Zelarayan, Santos; Zardes.

Who are Columbus Crew's key players?

Lucas Zelarayan

Even with the Crew struggling, Lucas Zelarayan - the 2020 MVP and Newcomer of the Year - remained one of the best players in MLS last season, notching 12 goals and four assists in 32 regular-season appearances. Across all competitions, those tallies went up to 13 and seven, respectively, including an assist in Columbus' 2-0 Campeones Cup final win over Cruz Azul.

Zelarayan has a little bit of everything in his locker. He can score from distance, pull off any number of defense-splitting pass, and has great tactical awareness, drifting into positions where defenders and midfielders just can't follow him.

Now a full Armenia international after switching allegiances from Argentina, Zelarayan will once again be tasked with stitching the Columbus attack together.

Gyasi Zardes

While Zelarayan is the one who builds attacks, Gyasi Zardes is the one who finishes them off.

The 30-year-old comes in for a fair amount of criticism at international level but remains lethal for the Crew, scoring 59 goals in 114 games across all competitions since joining the club in 2018.

Zardes' biggest quality has to be his instincts, able to sneak away from defenders unnoticed and make sure he's in the right place at the right time. From there - and only thanks to his own intelligence - most of the finishes he makes are incredibly simple.

A little old-fashioned, but hugely effective in MLS and vital to the Crew's chances of success.

Darlington Nagbe

If Zelarayan is one of the best attacking midfielders in MLS, Darlington Nagbe remains among the best all-rounders. Now 31, Nagbe continues to glide gracefully with the ball, seemingly unbothered by opposition pressure and brushing players aside as if they were an afterthought.

Porter will once again look to make Columbus possession-dominant in 2021, meaning Nagbe will see plenty of the ball and remain the pivot around which all else balances. Not to mention the defensive screen he'll have to provide alongside Artur.

Columbus Crew 2022 season prediction

Following the departures of Valenzuela and Harrison Afful, Steven Moreira remains the Crew's only senior full-back. So much will hinge on how they fill out those spots.

But even if they don't sign anyone and pull someone like Luis Diaz in as cover, the additions of Yaw Yeboah and Milos Degenek raise the talent level considerably.

At present, others have strengthened more, but the Crew have enough existing quality - and an ace in the hole in Zelarayan - to drag themselves back above the Playoff line. It'll be pretty, if a little inconsistent.

Prediction: 7th in the Eastern Conference