With a great accomplishment and a great roster come great expectations.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
It turns out I was sipping too much of that MLS Cup kool-aid (for which, I want to be clear, I blame David Gass). The Crew were so damn good in last year’s postseason, and were so very good in the MLS is Back Tournament as well, that it became easy to gloss over the fact that they’d been kind of meh during the 2020 regular season, and that the underlying numbers were flashing big warning signs.
It turns out that the underlying numbers were right. The Crew dealt with a lot of injuries in 2021, but even when they didn’t they were just a pretty ordinary, below-average team.
Formation and tactics
Caleb Porter gave one of the best in-game interviews I’ve ever seen in this early-season draw against the Union:
There is nothing I can add to this section that can explain how the Crew play – how they want to play out of Porter’s preferred 4-2-3-1 – better than that 90-second hit.
For some reason a lot of coaches bought in on in-game interviews this year and there were, subsequently, a number of very good ones. That was the best of them.
Sadly there just weren’t that many highlights during the regular season. The Crew’s 2021 seemed to come in fits and starts and they never really got into a rhythm until the very end, putting in a strong but ultimately futile playoff push starting in mid-September, putting up a 6-2-2 mark from then until season’s end.
The real highlight, though, is that they were actually 7-2-2 across all competitions during that stretch, and the one win brought a trophy with it. The Campeones Cup's ultimate standing in the hierarchy of available silverware is yet to be determined, but on Sept. 29 the Crew, with a fairly rotated squad, beat a full-strength Cruz Azul 2-0 at gorgeous new Lower.com Field and got themselves a trophy.
Look at this. These guys are happy as hell:
In the preseason “Tiers of MLS” column I wrote that the Crew were so talented that this season would be a failure if they didn’t win a trophy of some sort. And they did!
It’s still hard to consider this a success though, right? The Crew went HAM this past offseason adding depth, both young and old, all over the field, and while it turned out that expecting a 65-to-70-point season was irrational, they should’ve done more than 47 points.
Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos, Darlington Nagbe, Eloy Room and Jonathan Mensah all played at least 2500 minutes. That’s five of the Crew’s six best players, and it’s not like that sixth guy (Gyasi Zardes) was a no-show (he scored 9 goals in about 1600 minutes, and was ably filled in for by Miguel Berry, who we’ll talk more about in the next section).
So the lowlight is really just the entire season prior to Sept. 14. Injuries and all – the Crew had more than most, even if most of their best players were unscathed – this team, with this talent, just should’ve been better than they were.
Oh goodness, it’s hard not to be excited about Berry’s potential. The Crew’s first-round pick from the 2020 SuperDraft was a goalscoring machine in college and the youth ranks, and then spent a handful of productive games on loan in the USL Championship with San Diego Loyal.
And then 2021 happened. Berry hasn’t played a ton, but when he’s gotten out there he’s been exceptional with 8g/2a in 840 minutes in the regular season. Among all MLS center forwards he’s in the 98th percentile of non-penalty goals per 90 and in the 93rd percentile of non-penalty expected goals per 90, which is a fancy way of saying that his goalscoring seems relatively sustainable and not built off of a random hot streak. Another way of saying it is that he scores Zardes-type goals – rebounds, one-touch finishes off of good movement and the occasional towering header.
He's been great.
Berry was nowhere near being the most heralded young (or young-ish) player on this otherwise very old roster. That would’ve been either Homegrown d-mid Aidan Morris, who was one of the stars of last year’s MLS Cup final, or U22 Initiative signing Alexandru Matan, a winger who’s had a bit of time with Romanian youth national teams.
Morris tore his ACL in Concacaf Champions League play and didn’t log a single MLS minute this year. Matan got on the field for 792 minutes and didn’t register a goal or an assist.
Morris’s ACL and Matan’s struggles exacerbated the lineup issues caused by Artur’s season-long injury issues in central midfield and season-long underperformance (and injury issues) with the more experienced winger corps.
Another way of saying it is that great on-paper depth they collected during the offseason turned out to only be exactly that: on-paper depth.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Zelarayan (AM): The ultimate boom/bust player, Zelarayan is either killing you with unnecessary turnovers (there is no defender he won’t try to dribble) or saving you with golazos. It’s no coincidence that the Crew’s best stretch of the season coincided with his best stretch.
- Nagbe (CM): Quietly did what he’s been doing for years – breaking the press and cycling the ball upfield. He does little else, but at that he is a god.
- Mensah (CB): Regressed hard from his Best XI 2020 form, but Mensah’s still a foundational piece of a potentially excellent backline.
- Artur (CM): So they missed him pretty bad, yeah? Clearly he’s damn near irreplaceable.
- Zardes (CF): You know what you’re getting from Gyasi in terms of the runs he makes, the chances he finishes, and what he can and can not do. Makes it easy to build an attack and just plop him into it.
Four of the five guys on that list above are either 30 or turn 30 next season. The one who’s not – Artur – has a history of knee injuries and just missed all but 434 minutes of this season. Meanwhile, other important contributors like Santos, Josh Williams and Harrison Afful are well into their mid-30s.
The Crew, this year, were the oldest team in the league. Part of that is because, of the young or young-ish players on the roster, none but Berry impressed. Derrick Etienne had 1g/5a in almost 1900 minutes, while Luis Diaz had 1g/0a in just under 1000. Milton Valenzuela took a step back after last year’s step forward, and Aboubacar Keita couldn’t hold down the fort next to Mensah when Williams missed time.
So I expect to see a lot of offseason surgery on this roster, which could potentially include buying down Zardes with allocation cash – or maybe shopping him if they really believe in Berry – and opening up a DP slot for a high-end winger.
We shall see.