It’s hard for many to believe the MLS preseason is beginning. It’s just as difficult to fathom how the Crew have so many question marks remaining with the team starting practice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Wednesday.
The Crew have holes at left back, center back and right back — with the winger position just as big of an issue as when the 2021 season ended.
Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Caleb Porter are aware of the lack of excitement the club generated with acquisitions this offseason, but there seems to be no worry they’ll have a team capable of being a competitor in 2022.
"I know it's been a little quiet, but we've got a plan,” Porter said. “We've got certain positions that we're still looking at, and you're going to continue to see moves made here in the next several weeks. I'm confident by the start of the year, we're going to have four to five more guys added, and we'll be in good shape.”
When the Crew finished their exit interviews in November, Porter said the team would likely add four or five more players who were assumed to be capable of starting, and the team would have to improve at winger. Thus far, much of that hasn’t happened.
Talks with starting left back Milton Valenzuela appear to be nearing an end, with the Crew making plans to sign another left back and move winger Pedro Santos to fill Valenzuela’s spot.
The one significant signing this offseason has been Ghanaian winger Yaw Yeboah from Wisla Krakow in Poland. After limited production from wingers last season — five players combined for seven goals and 11 assists in 34 games — the Crew is relying fairly heavily on Yeboah and on the improvement of young wingers Luis Diaz and Alex Matan.
"We feel like with Yaw Yeboah we certainly add from the top a bit,” Porter said. “He'll be a guy that produces goals and brings a little something different that teams have to worry about.”
— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) January 6, 2022
Assuming Valenzuela doesn’t return, the Crew is taking its most productive winger from the past three seasons in Santos out of the position, making the signing of Yeboah more of a replacement than an addition.
Porter hinted at more moves before the club announced signings of third-string goalkeeper Brady Scott, homegrown midfielder Sean Zawadzki and center backs Jalil Anibaba and Jake Morris, brother of Crew midfielder Aidan Morris. Of those, it's likely only Anibaba will make an appearance for the Crew in 2022. The other three have not yet played in an MLS game.
There’s also a need for another center back behind Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams, and a player to fill Harrison Afful’s second spot at right back after the Crew decided not to re-sign him. That spot could be filled by Marlon Hairston, who played midfield last season.
The Crew has been linked to a potential loan deal for Nigerian midfielder James Igbekeme, who plays for Spanish second-division club Real Zaragoza and would join an already deep group of central midfielders unless he is moved to another position.
Bezbatchenko said during the MLS draft last week that the Crew isn’t finished adding players. But more of a focus on depth players than starters perhaps shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
The Crew were decimated by injuries last season. The strategy this offseason has clearly been to bolster depth and work on limiting injuries.
"I think our most significant improvement is going to come from staying healthy,” Bezbatchenko said. “What I would say is it's more about refocusing our team. We'll always look to improve in every position, but I don't think wholesale changes are needed.”
It might not have been the offseason fans expected, but there seems to be no panic inside the club.
“Quietly, we've been preparing to make moves and you'll see some triggers pulled in the next couple weeks,” Porter said.
After the Crew wraps up in Florida on Jan. 28, they will return to Columbus on Feb. 1, then finish in Charleston, South Carolina, from Feb. 7-19. In Charleston, the Crew will play Inter Miami, Charlotte FC and the United Soccer League’s Charleston Battery before beginning the 2022 season with the Vancouver Whitecaps at Lower.com Field on Feb. 26.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: How the Columbus Crew offseason as gone as preseason 2022 begins