Winning matches brings its moments of celebration, but to consistently contend for championships, the investment in personnel, facilities, and the community is critical to bringing a unique level of credibility. To establish a culture of winning, the quest to build a complete club is the Crew’s North Star.
Now that quest, as straightforward as it may seem from the outside, often differentiates from club to club. In this instance, take the game of professional soccer – the globe’s most popular sport.
Depending on the club and the league's structure, some are naturally structured to provide parity, while others play into the hands of established giants. Additionally, maybe player development is a key goal, or simply being content with postseason qualification.
To most, it’s a game measured by wins and losses, so in the most simplistic sense, each team takes the pitch with intentions to win. That, though, is the abridged goal of a much larger vision that lies at the heart of each team’s purpose.
So when clubs and fans alike propose the same question of “What are our aspirations as a club?”, the obvious reply of “to win” seems too simplistic.
In this era for the Crew, the goal is to establish itself as a complete club.
“Every club defines [success] a different way, especially in the global game,” said President & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko.
The question that was posed to Bezbatchenko was, “What aspirations define Columbus Crew SC at this point in time and what influences those aspirations?”
From a competition standpoint, he said the Crew’s aspirations are two-fold: to be a consistent contender and to win championships.
“I know that sounds simple, but as we all know, it’s incredibly challenging. There are so many facets as to how we become a contender. In our league, with the global game of soccer, it entails multiple competitions, so it’s a factor of how we define success as a club.”
The aspirations of the club begin with contending in every competition year-in and year-out. It’s about showcasing Columbus as the top team in Major League Soccer, so naturally, winning MLS Cup is the priority.
That priority jumpstarts on July 11 when the Crew kicks off its first match in the MLS is Back Tournament vs. FC Cincinnati. Expect the Crew to approach each group stage match like a regular-season match, since, well, they are.
Should the Black & Gold advance, another competition begins in a sense, with enticing rewards including a Concacaf Champions League berth and prize money.
But the ability to contend in these dual competitions is where the puzzle lies. In order to solve it, the process entails syncing every aspect of the organization – business, soccer operations, and fan & community engagement.
So as this improved Crew roster embarks on this simultaneous challenge of balancing regular-season goals and tournament champion aspirations, it’s a suitable time to again examine the Crew’s redefined aspirations and revisit the question of:
How does this organization shape itself to be a consistent contender for championships?
It starts with having a vision and a way to measure that vision, Bezbatchenko explained.
“We are defining success with trophies, and how often we can get in a position to compete for those trophies,” Bezbatchenko said, first and foremost. “For us, it’s not a matter of looking to do that once every five years. What we are trying to do, our worldview and our vision is to build a complete club.”
Then, it’s about pairing ambition to assets. From state-of-the-art facilities, to hiring the right personnel, to in-depth scouting and recruiting, to fostering community relations and committing to youth development, it’s all interconnected.
Bezbatchenko explained that any executive can say they are looking to develop a complete club with “ambitions,” but it starts with pairing aspirations and assets, such as building a new Downtown Stadium and a new Performance Center.
These investments have been attractive for fans and players alike, and as midfielder Lucas Zelarayan said, that investment is one of the reasons he chose Columbus.
“I really liked the project the club had. First and foremost, they’re working on a new, beautiful stadium as well as an impressive training center where I think all of us players will feel comfortable and enjoy each training session and every match.”
Of course, from a players’ perspective, the want to win is a given. So investing in a roster built for competing in every match was a key part of conversations with Zelarayan, as well as with Darlington Nagbe, the midfielder said.
“I think it was more so trying to win every game, and then to winning every game and trying to do the best that you can in every competition,” Nagbe said on what aspects of the Club’s vision drew him back home to Ohio.
“I think the discussions with the front office and coaches, coming in, was that we just want to be as competitive as possible in every competition that we’re in.”
As it relates to prospective players, a complete club knows how it fits with players’ expectations.
In the instance of Zelarayan, who came from one of the wealthiest clubs in all of the Americas in Tigres UANL, the Argentine has embraced the opportunity to now be a leader as the number 10, something that wasn't necessarily there for the taking during his tenure in Mexico.
“I think this team is trying to be a protagonist, trying to finish top of the table and reach the playoffs to win a title. I think that’s the biggest aspiration we have as a team. Me being the number 10 in a team that aspires to be a champion is something that motivated me a lot and that idea attracted me, which is why I made the decision to come here and I’m happy to be here.”
Another way a complete club’s ambition comes to fruition, Bezbatchenko said, is by providing a proper and aggressive development pathway while also using all player acquisition mechanisms – Designated Players, TAM, Re-Entry Drafts, etc. – to mold a well-rounded roster. This, of course, is a process that takes time.
Most importantly, however, is understanding how the fans and community play into the club's aspiration, as ultimately fans create the atmosphere that leads the club to victory, which further allows it to continue reinvesting in itself.
As Bezbatchenko explained, it’s a complex process for a simple competitive goal, and moving forward, expect the Crew to embrace that complexity, which is an opportunity not all organizations capitalize on.
“We are blessed in MLS with equal opportunity. Owners may choose to invest in certain years, but generally, we all have the same starting point and based on our vision and model, we can all aspire to do different things,” he said.
“So for us … going back to this idea of a complete club, we want to contend for championships, we want to be intentional, and have a balanced roster. What that means is we’re not just going to focus on being an evenly spread, talented team across the 30. What I mean by balance is we are going to balance it out with all the mechanisms you can apply to players in our league.”
That means signing three DP's and taking advantage of Targeted Allocation Money, which wasn’t fully done in the past, he said.
That also means committing resources to scouting and acquiring as much information as possible, as well as not forgetting about the significance of the domestic player, who may be acquired through various trades or drafts.
Lastly, as the Club naturally looks to extend its influence, the focus simultaneously turns inward to the local youth level as the Club looks to establish its position as a leader in identifying and producing homegrown talent.
“Player development, that is the next step for the Crew,” Bezbatchenko said. “The way MLS has now assumed the mantle of the responsibility to develop players, we as a club want to be a leader in player development, and that starts with connecting with youth clubs, having a great curriculum, having great coaches, and then having a full player development pathway.”
The aspirations reach for the stars, but in order to do so, the organizational goals all have to be interconnected on the ground level.
In other words, in order to see an MLS Cup trophy back in Columbus, it’s all hands on deck, and that ship sets sail on July 11.