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Columbus Crew SC offseason may be time of change

Nov 1, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Columbus Crew celebrates after defeating D.C. United in penalty kicks at Audi Field. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Change tends to be the norm in any Major League Soccer offseason, but it will be especially true for Crew SC in the coming months.

Coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter, who for weeks has been identified as a favorite for the U.S. men’s national team coaching job, could be leaving after five seasons.

Then there is the issue of who will operate the team. Precourt Sports Ventures is technically still in that role, but it was announced last month that a prospective ownership group that includes the Edwards family of Columbus and Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam are making “significant” progress toward purchasing the Crew.

It’s unclear when exactly the transaction — which would likely involve the new buyer group purchasing the Columbus MLS operating rights directly from the league and PSV moving its equity interest in the league to Austin, Texas — will take place, but there are no indications it won’t happen.

“Given the work and progress on many fronts by many people, I remain optimistic that we can get a transaction completed,” said Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer, who has been working to facilitate the sale.

While that work continues, the Crew will grapple with the same decisions it faces any offseason — constructing a roster and determining who stays and who goes, starting with the deadline to exercise contract options on Nov. 26.

The Crew began the season trying to figure out who might score goals after leaders from 2017 — Ola Kamara and Justin Meram — requested and were granted trades. Goal production slipped from 53 to 43, but it does not appear the Crew will have to make a change up top. A source confirmed this week that Gyasi Zardes, who led the Crew with 19 goals in 2018, is under contract for 2019.

“I think I had an extremely successful year as a striker in this league and as an American striker in this league,” Zardes said Monday. “I always give my coaching staff and my teammates credit for all of my success because from Day One in preseason, they’ve implemented me into the lineup extremely well.”

Federico Higuain, who was second on the Crew with six goals in 2018, also is expected back after signing a one-year extension of his designated player contract in April. In addition, signs point to wide attacking midfielder Niko Hansen, the No. 9 overall draft pick in 2017 who was third on the team with three goals, returning.

The Crew struggled on offense at times in 2018, particularly when teams zeroed in on Zardes and Higuain and challenged the wingers to score. Although another starting-caliber attacking player wouldn’t be out of the question for the offseason wish list, the team will also look to improve through better production from the wingers it has under contract.

A source confirmed that Pedro Santos and Meram have contracts for 2019. They made a combined $1,373,358 in 2018, according to MLS Players Association data.

Meram, who was traded back from Orlando City in early August, scored a goal and added an assist in nine appearances after his return. The 29-year-old said 2018 was a long season and that he put too much pressure on himself upon returning to the Crew, thinking he would rediscover his 13-goal form from 2017 right away.

“It’s been some dark days for me but coming back here brought some light days, some happiness back into my life and I’m very thankful that I had an opportunity to get a second stint here,” Meram said.

Santos had seven assists, second-most on the team, but logged just one goal in 2,221 minutes.

Berhalter said Monday he expects to have designated player Milton Valenzuela back permanently after the 20-year-old left back spent the season on loan from Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys. The transfer, which would come at a nominal fee, is expected to be more straightforward than that of midfielder Artur, which required Berhalter to fly to Brazil last offseason to complete negotiations.

For all of the Crew’s likely returnees, the team could look quite different next season. The Crew fielded transfer offers from the English Championship league for midfielder Wil Trapp and goalkeeper Zack Steffen over the summer, and that interest won’t die down soon.

The transfer window for most European leagues doesn’t open until January, but the assumption from many around the league is that Steffen — the MLS goalkeeper of the year and a Best XI player — might have played his last game for the Crew and that the team stands to make significantly more via transfer fee than the $3.9 million it was offered from Bristol City in July. Trapp has received interest from a handful of clubs in Europe.

This offseason could be one of dramatic change for the Crew, but to Berhalter, the team’s goals remain the same.

“I think like any offseason, our job is to get better,” Berhalter said. “Our job is to improve and we’ll be looking at the roster and seeing areas where we can improve and addressing that.”
(c)2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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