If you were looking for a worst-case scenario for Toronto FC in 2017, look no further than the Columbus Crew last season. After suffering defeat on home turf in the MLS Cup final in 2015, the Crew crashed to ninth in the Eastern Conference the following year, winning just eight of their 34 games.
During preseason, Toronto general manager Tim Bezbatchenko acknowledged the plight of teams like Columbus as evidence of the parity that exists in MLS, making it difficult for consistent powerhouses to emerge. Getting to an MLS Cup final is one thing; returning the next year is another entirely.
This year, though, things are looking up in Ohio. Toronto’s opponents on Saturday are currently second in the East - though they have played a game or two more than many of the teams behind them - and in Ola Kamara they possess one of the league’s premier scoring threats. We caught up with Patrick Murphy of Massive Report to check in on the Crew’s progress so far.
1. As your successors as losing MLS Cup finalists on home turf, Columbus' 2016 season makes everyone in Toronto a little nervy. What went wrong?
How much time do you have? Just kidding (kind of). The first part may be something TFC is currently experiencing. Crew SC began the season with quite the hangover from losing the Cup final. At home. In very disappointing fashion. The players, although they didn't admit it at the time, seemed to expect things to pick right back up, but that's not how sports work. Gregg Berhalter admitted he probably relaxed things too much and didn't make enough additions, instead allowing the same group to try and get back to the final and fix what happened the previous year.
On top of that, the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain feud led to the forward heading to the New England Revolution and a changing of the offence. Then Higuain got hurt. Then Gaston Sauro. By the time the team had its head right, too many players were out of the lineup to get things fixed.
Best advice, stay healthy to get things turned around.
2. This season seems to have started much more positively for the Crew despite facing a few teams in good form. What's the mood around the club like at this early stage?
Things certainly are better than a year ago at this time. Obviously the expectations are different this season, at least externally, but it has resulted in much more positivity in training.
As you mentioned, the Black & Gold have had a good beginning, earning three wins and defeating two unbeaten sides already on the year, but it hasn't all been perfect. The team is yet to put together a full 90-minute performance. In the two losses, the offence looked lacklustre at points, which allowed Houston and Chicago to take a lead.
While I don't think anyone involved with Crew SC will complain about the start, both the players and coaches understand there is still plenty of room for improvement.
3. Columbus had big problems defensively last season. Are you confident progress has been made in that area this offseason?
So far so good. Outside of games against the Portland Timbers and the Houston Dynamo, two of MLS' best offences, Columbus has conceded just two goals. Designated player and central defender Jonathan Mensah has hardly played due to a suspension and injury and rookie Alex Crognale has stepped in and played very well.
Left-back Jukka Raitala has fit in seamlessly and the new additions have formed a good partnership with the returning players, Harrison Afful and Nicolai Naess.
Columbus' defence is never going to be tops in the league due to how the team plays, but an improvement would go a long way, especially after last year.
Projected lineup (4-4-1-1): Steffen; Afful, Crognale, Naess, Raitala; Finlay, Artur, Trapp, Meram; Higuain; Kamara.