It is logical to disregard a 2019 season that saw the Columbus Crew fall short, but to do so would blind us from the origin of the process that leaves supporters anticipating Opening Match and the 2020 season overall.
Let’s look back at the notable turning points throughout the offseason and the First Team's mindset going into the season.
Room averaged 1.17 goals-against in 12 starts as the Club went unbeaten in 11 of 13 matches down the stretch; Mokhtar made five starts, including three of the last four, and scored in the home finale; and Diaz recorded four assists and two goals, including a game-winner vs. Atlanta United.
In November and December, Columbus doubled-down with key acquisitions like Darlington Nagbe and Vito Wormgoor to accompany the historic signing of No. 10 Lucas Zelarayan, who is set to make his MLS regular-season debut on March 1 at MAPFRE Stadium along with Wormgoor.
Standard offseason movement aside, this is a different Crew.
Fourteen players on the current roster were not on the roster at the start of 2019, in addition to Milton Valenzuela, a Young Designated Player who didn’t play a regular-season minute last year due to injury.
As Head Coach Caleb Porter embarks on his seventh season in the League, he said the team’s progression through preseason ranks high amongst past teams, and the Club’s offseason maneuvers have a lot to do with that.
“I can tell you in going through seven preseasons we are in a really good spot in comparison to other teams that I’ve had. It helps that we made quite a few signings in the summer so a lot of the roster-building started there,” Porter said.
The Crew competed in four friendlies this preseason before winning the 2020 Sun Cup, its fourth-consecutive preseason tournament trophy.
The team capped off the three-match round-robin tournament with a 4-1 win over the Houston Dynamo. Notably, all four goals came in the first half.
The tournament featured three different Starting XI’s, and as Porter alluded to, Columbus’ depth was on display and has been a key talking-point around the Club this preseason.
“In our offseason discussions…we felt we needed to build on that core, which we did, and then we added in some pieces to strengthen our 11 but then also our depth. I think you’ve seen in this preseason the continuance of the end of the year, but we’ve gone to an even higher level which is really good to see,” Porter said.
Earlier in preseason, Nagbe, who came from Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers before that, mentioned how Columbus has been the easiest team for him to transition into. He also stressed the level of talent from his teammates and the familiar tactics from his time with Porter back in Portland.
The midfielder, who ranked first in the League in overall passing accuracy (92.6 percent) and passing accuracy in the opponent's half (91.09 percent) among players with at least 20 League starts, spoke on what the Crew’s roster depth ultimately means.
“I think it’s huge. Obviously it pushes the guys in training to give their all and at the same time, if you’re not at your best, there is someone available that can get the job done. So I think there’s just the point that we push each other, which we have done during the preseason and the coaches have done a good job of pushing us as well,” he said.
At leftback, Valenzuela made an impressive return from injury and played his first full-90 on Feb. 15 in Tucson, Ariz.
The leftback stands next to Wormgoor, an imposing 6’2” centerback with prior leadership experience who spoke earlier in preseason about the tactical adjustments he’s had to work through.
Nonetheless, Wormgoor said he expects to create something beautiful with Valenzuela, who agreed and said the partnership is meshing well, and not just with Wormgoor but with all the new faces, including Nagbe and Zelarayan.
“In the matches [Vito] and I have played, we’ve played well, we’ve done well,” Valenzuela said. “It’s not easy to get used to playing with a new teammate in a short period of time but I think we’re coming along well. I feel comfortable with him as well.”
For Valenzuela, he said his role overall has stayed the same under Porter, but that it's his duty is to adapt to his teammates.
“It will take some time – with any new teammate that I play with – to understand one another on the field. But honestly I’ve felt very good up to this point and I think that we will continue to make progress, not just with Vito but with the other new teammates,” he said.
As it relates to Nagbe and Zelarayan’s presence, they provide something different, Valenzuela said.
“They’re very smart, they have a lot of experience and skill, which helps out on the field when it comes to getting the competitive advantage on your rival. They’re very important players to our system. Although we haven’t played together very long you can tell that they’re great players and that they bring something different to the team,” he said.
So what can fans expect to see from the Crew this season?
Expect a team that will take nothing for granted, Valenzuela said.
“We know that we have the tools, but we also know that we have to work to get the upper hand. We can’t get distracted. We’re also hard-working in the sense that we are committed to the team and each one of us gives everything he has to make the team better as a whole, and to make each other better,” he said.
Central midfielder Artur spoke on how the team’s hunger runs through the entire roster and how it’s fueling the team ahead of Sunday.
“Everybody works hard, everybody tries to help each other, and we know that we have to earn what we are fighting for and the feeling I have about the team is everybody is hungry, everybody wants to play the first game and everyone wants to win. Everybody is just excited to play together at MAPFRE,” he said.
Mensah agreed, but stressed how short-term accomplishments will be what leads this team to long-term success.
“We need to win the short-term goals. Taking it game after game,” he said. “Not making the playoffs last season is the motivation for us to make it to the playoffs, go all the way and win the ultimate. So, for us to get there we need to win our little battles.”
For the continued support this Club has received from the fans, Mensah's countryman, Harrison Afful, looks to give what the fans deserve on March 1.
“We can’t wait to get on the pitch and give the three points to our fans because they’ve been with us since day one. We just have to go all out and get the three points on Sunday,” he said.
Porter made clear last year that the psychological aspect in soccer is paramount.
The ability to find the game-winner late; to keep the foot on the gas with a two-goal lead; to earn a result in a hostile environment; those are all things he stressed in 2019.
In order to achieve that, it starts with the proper personnel – something he thinks they have going into 2020.
“This is a great group of guys. I’m enjoying every day with all of them. They are top professionals, quality players, and outstanding men. So I’m enjoying it and looking forward obviously to kicking off the season the right way with three points against [NYCFC] on Sunday."
The first challenge comes Sunday as Eastern Conference regular-season champion New York City FC comes to Columbus. All-time, the Crew holds a 3-1-3 record against NYCFC.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET