Columbus Crew SC: Projected Starters

Nov 22, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara (23) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the New York Red Bulls in the second half of leg one of the Eastern Conference championship at Mapfre Stadium. The Crew won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 22, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara (23) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the New York Red Bulls in the second half of leg one of the Eastern Conference championship at Mapfre Stadium. The Crew won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

Columbus Crew SC started the preseason with very little turnover on the roster. Head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter has built a stable squad in his tenure. With only one designated player on the roster, Berhalter shows it’s not about famous names from overseas, rather, savvy pickups for a reasonable price. Crew SC look to avenge their saddening loss in the MLS cup finals last season with the same starters.

Projected Formation: 4-2-3-1

Goalkeeper: Steve Clark

Clark has taken a lot of flak for an early goal allowed in the cup finals. Outside of the occasional error, Clark has done a great job in Columbus. Stats here are misleading when it comes to his abilities between the posts. With Berhalter pushing fullbacks high up the field there are defensive gaps. Additionally, in the first half of the season there was a problem finding a quality centerback after Emmanuel Pogatetz failed to live up to the hype. Look for Clark to rebound this year thanks to Gaston Suaro.

Left Back: Waylon Francis

The Costa Rican international has been a mainstay for Crew SC and a major factor in the high octane offense. Francis is a fast defender who moves high up the flanks to set up crosses and overlaps from the wings. Time and time again Francis has showed to be a speedy attacker and quality defender. Look for Francis to have another solid season under Berhalter.

Left Center Back: Gaston Sauro

After Pogatetz failed to live up to the expectations placed on him in the capital city, Crew SC hit its worst defensive skid. Tyson Wahl couldn’t fill the role and opposing attackers had free reign as long as Captain Michael Parkhurst was occupied. When Suaro was signed to fill a hole that has not been properly filled since Chad Marshall was traded to Seattle Sounders, the expectations couldn’t have been greater. The Argentine came through and helped set a physical tone for a new Crew defense that showed its toughness in the postseason.

Right Center Back: Michael Parkhurst

Early last season the captain was tasked with trying to lead and inspire a defense that just wasn’t working well together. Right back became a revolving door after Argentine Hernan Grana left due to homesickness. Additionally, his partner in central defense was unable to perform at the level required in Berhalter’s system. Described as “Cerebral” by his teammates, his leadership and experience will be able to guide a defense to a solid start.

Right Back: Harrison Afful

Once Grana returned to Argentina, right back became another weakness. Played by versatile midfielder Hector Jimenez for most of the year, the right flank became a liability. Afful was signed in the summer and made an instant impact. The Ghanaian international could match Francis with speed and crossing ability up the flanks. With his transfer rumors dispelled, look for the back four to be the best on opening day in years.

Left Holding Midfielder: Will Trapp

The shiny new US national has been a staple with the Crew the last few seasons. The young midfielder had his 2015 season start late due to a concussion, but once healthy the midfield locked down. Although barely old enough to drink, his ball handling and vision will propel the attacking midfield deep into the attacking third. Look for Trapp to be the X-factor week in and week out and determine how consistent the squad remains.

Right Holding Midfielder: Tony Tchani

Trapp’s partner in crime, Tchani was also recently called up to the US national team for the first time. A physical midfielder and strong ball handler, he anchored the defensive midfield as best as he could until Trapp came back. By himself he is a solid defender and passer, combined with Trapp they are two of the most feared defensive midfielders in all of MLS. Look for Tchani to show why he was called up by national team by coach Jurgen Klinnsman

Left Midfielder: Justin Meram

Justin Meram will be an interesting player to watch. While he has been a consistent starter under Berhalter, there are concerns. Meram comes through with beautiful, curling shots when the game is on the line. That said, he also will disappear for weeks on end which has caused him to be benched before. In 2014 there were stretches when he was benched for Bernardo Anor. His performance in the first month or so will likely determine if he starts all year.

Central Midfielder: Federico Higuian

The only designated player on the Crew roster, the Argentine nicknamed “Pipa” by the locals has been a driving force behind the Crew staying consistent. Higuian used to have to be the only offensive spark for a flat offense. With more balanced attacking options on the wings and Kei Kamara at forward, Higuian can go back to being a chance creator. As prolific as he has been, his age is starting to show and look for this to be one of his final seasons with Crew SC. His productivity will likely show decline as the year drags into winter.

Right Midfielder: Ethan Finley

Finley broke out last season on the wings due to his speed and his outstanding finishing ability. 2015 was good enough to earn him his first call up to the national team along with the Trapp and Tchani. His ability to fly up the wing or cut inside made him a valuable option in the attacking third. With Kei Kamara at forward, Finley adds lightning speed to Kamara’s thunder physical approach in the box. Look for Finley to be top five in assists at seasons end.

Forward: Kei Kamara

The golden boot runner up was late to camp over an alleged contract dispute. Outside of rumored front office issues, the former Sierra Leone international was a human highlight reel last season. A great mixture of speed, power and verticality let him to tie for most goals at seasons end. Kamara lost to Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco on the assist tiebreaker and will look to capture the title this season.

Players to watch

Forward: Conner Casey

Without a veteran forward on the roster after Jack McInerney was traded to the Portland Timbers. When Conner Casey became available from the Philadelphia Union, he was picked up as a veteran backup should Kamara Holdout or get injured.

Midfielder: Emil Larson

The recent signing should help relieve the stress of losing multiple wingers to international call ups. That said, look for the Dane to be a direct threat to Justin Meram’s starting job. If Larson can show more consistency and be what released Icelandic winger Kristen Steindorsson failed to, expect him to take the wing opposite Findley.