MLS Expansion Draft: Projecting the Columbus Crew SC Protected List

Major League Soccer is welcoming two new teams into the league for the 2017 season. Those sides, Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United, will be populating their respective rosters in a variety of ways. One of these is via the MLS Expansion Draft which will take place on December 13th.

The full list of rules and regulations for the draft can be found below:

2016 MLS Expansion Draft 

What will the Columbus Crew SC protected list look like? Certain players impressed in 2016 but others may be expendable after a disappointing campaign devoid of a playoff appearance. With that in mind, here’s a projection of what to expect starting with goalkeepers and working our way up the field from there.

MLS Expansion Draft: Projecting the Columbus Crew SC Protected List

Before discussing the list itself, it make sense to mention the Crew SC players exempt from selection. Wil Trapp, Ben Swanson and Chad Barson are all Homegrowns and as such can’t get picked. It should also be noted that seven players occupy international roster spots. Per the rules of the expansion draft, Crew SC must protect a minimum of three.

Goalkeepers

Steve Clark

With the exception of this season’s final two games, Steve Clark has started every single regular season match for Crew SC since he was signed in 2014. Including playoffs, Clark has logged a total of 9,660 minutes for the club. Only the New York Red Bulls’ Luis Robles has more in MLS play during that time.

Crew SC’s struggles letting in goals was more a function of a leaky back line than it was poor play on Clark’s part. Most metrics indicate he remains one of the best shot-stopping goalkeepers in the league. His eight shutouts and 69.4 percent save percentage were both fourth-best in MLS.

Zack Steffen

Acquired in the summer transfer window from Bundesliga side SC Freiburg, Zack Steffen has the potential to be the future for both club and country. The 21-year-old helped lead the US U-20s to a quarterfinal appearance in the 2015 World Cup at that age level. Columbus loaned Steffen to their USL affiliate Pittsburgh Riverhounds where he made nine starts and tallied two shutouts.

It wouldn’t make much sense to bring Steffen to Columbus only to leave him unprotected and risk either Atlanta or Minnesota take him as a developmental project. Expect him to be on this list.

Defenders

Harrison Afful

There might not be a better right back in MLS than Harrison Afful. As such, he’s a virtual shoe-in on the Crew SC protected list. The 30-year-old is a complete embodiment of the two-way, overlapping fullback so crucial to Gregg Berhalter‘s system. Only three defenders in the league had more goals than the three he scored this year. And advanced stats site Whoscored.com named the Ghanaian to their 2016 All-MLS Starting XI.

Nicolai Naess

It became readily apparent fairly quickly in 2016 that Crew SC needed some help in central defense. And so the club brought in Norwegian defender Nicolai Naess in the summer. His impact was immediate. In Naess’ 13 starts, Columbus averaged 1.31 points per game compared to 0.90 before his arrival.

Naess is clearly a key cog that this club wants to build around moving forward. He’s a versatile center back that showed he can slot a tad more advanced up the park, playing as a defensive midfielder if need be. He’ll be protected.

Gaston Sauro

When healthy, Gaston Sauro is as reliable a center back as they come. After being acquired from FC Basel last summer, he played a key role on the back line in Crew SC’s Eastern Conference title in 2015. But a torn PCL suffered on May 21st limited him to just 12 starts this season.

Sauro was the first player in Crew SC history to be signed using targeted allocation money. Both him and Naess look to be the center backs of the future for this club. The Argentinian defender needs to be included on this list.

Midfielders

Ethan Finlay

There may not have been a bigger embodiment of Crew SC’s step back in 2016 after making MLS Cup than Ethan Finlay. The 26-year-old saw his goal production halved from his standout campaign the previous season when he finished with 12 goals and 13 assists. It led to Berhalter benching him numerous times this season.

Now it might be tempting to leave Finlay unprotected as a result. But let’s be honest. It wasn’t very long ago when he was looked at as one of the top attacking wingers in MLS. Less than eight months ago, Finlay was playing in a World Cup qualifier for the USMNT in his home stadium.

Dips in form are part of the game. Finlay’s still in the prime of his career so there’s certainly the prospect of a career revival in 2017.

Federico Higuain

Injuries played their part in derailing Crew SC’s 2016 season. Perhaps the most crucial was to playmaker Federico Higuain. The Argentinian number ten underwent hernia surgery in early June. After returning on July 23rd, Higuain played in six more games before inflammation from the procedure forced him out until the season finale.

The big question moving forward is whether or not this inability to stay healthy an isolated incident or something that could become a worrisome trend. Higuain is 32 and beginning to enter that stretch of a soccer career which could be classified as “past his prime.” That said, a player with his leadership, dedication and work ethic is an important component of any roster.

Cristian Martinez

This is one of those moves with the future of the club in mind. Cristian Martinez joined Crew SC on loan in May 2016 from Panamanian club Chorillo FC. He made five appearances including two starts and scored in the club’s 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Union on June 1st.

The 19-year-old is a promising young prospect and Columbus should be looking to convert his loan spell to a permanent move. Having healthy competition among positions is always a good thing and Martinez can provide that to Finlay at right wing.

Justin Meram

There are always going to be a few no-brainers when it comes to a list such as this. Justin Meram certainly qualifies in that regard. 2016 was arguably his best in a Crew SC uniform. The left-winger finished with five goals but, more importantly, provided a career-high 13 assists. To put that in perspective, Meram had 13 helpers in his previous five seasons with the club.

Meram has received regular call-ups to the Iraqi national team and should be a fixture with the Lions of Mesopotamia as they look to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Assuming Crew SC can keep him (there’s likely going to be interest abroad in the off-season), Meram also needs to be a fixture in a Black and Gold uniform for the foreseeable future.

Forwards

Adam Jahn

Crew SC acquired Adam Jahn from the San Jose Earthquakes in the summer. It turned out to be one of the more underrated moves of the season. Jahn played in 12 games for Columbus and scored five goals, including a brace against the Chicago Fire on October 13th. His 0.98 goals per 90 led the league among players with a minimum of 450 minutes.

His instant impact up top prompted the club to make the first transaction of the off-season in re-signing Jahn. The 25-year-old center forward will provide solid depth behind the last player on this projection.

Ola Kamara

Another obvious choice for inclusion on the protected list, Ola Kamara was the off-season signing of the year for Crew SC. The Norwegian number nine was able to pick up where Kei Kamara left off after the latter was traded to New England after the now infamous penalty kick dust-up. Despite starting just 20 games, Kamara scored 16 goals in 2016.

That total put him a tie for fifth best in the league with Sporting Kansas City‘s Dom Dwyer and Portland‘s Fanendo Adi. Kamara’s goals per 90 was much higher at 0.79, compared to Adi’s 0.54 and Dwyer’s 0.51.

Notable Omissions

Michael Parkhurst: The current Crew SC captain is reportedly at odds with the club over the terms of a new contract. The 32-year-old veteran has been a fixture on the back line since being signed in 2014, making a combined 106 regular season/playoff starts.

Tony Tchani: After finishing last season with five goals and six assists, Tchani managed just a goal and three assists in 2016. His minutes plummeted, making just 20 starts compared to 32 the year before.

Mohammed Saeid: Crew SC’s injury situation forced Saeid into multiple roles during the 2016 season. His quality as a provider was on full display as he finished third on the team in assists with five.


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