2016 MLS season preview: Columbus Crew SC

After falling to the Portland Timbers on home turf in the 2015 MLS Cup final, Gregg Berhalter's men will be aiming to go one better this season.

2015 regular season: 2nd Eastern Conference (4th overall)

2015 playoffs: MLS Cup final; 2-1 loss to Portland Timbers

MLS Cup odds: 7/1

Players in: Corey Ashe (free agency), Emil Larsen (Odense BK, undisclosed), Conor Casey (free agency), Amro Tarek (Real Betis, loan), Rodrigo Saravia (SuperDraft), Ola Kamara (Austria Wien, undisclosed)

Players out: Emanuel Pogatetz (option declined), Kristinn Steindorsson (option declined), Ben Speas (out of contract), Matt Lampson (out of contract), Kevan George (out of contract), Aaron Schoenfeld (out of contract), Chris Klute (Portland Timbers, trade), Jack McInerney (Portland Timbers, trade), Sergio Campbell (waived), Romain Gall (waived)

Columbus Crew SC endured their fair share of struggles during the 2015 regular season, but the form of attacking duo Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay meant they were never truly in danger of missing the playoffs. After the summer additions of Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro patched up a horrendously leaky defence, they promptly entered the postseason on a tear, dispatching Didier Drogba’s Montreal Impact and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls en route to their first MLS Cup final since 2008. The year ultimately ended in disappointment with a 2-1 defeat to the Portland Timbers, but things look well set up for another title run in 2016.

Reasons to be positive

Continuity is the key. Head coach Gregg Berhalter still has last season’s first-choice XI entirely intact, and with Afful and Sauro on board for the entire year, the backline shouldn’t concede 53 regular season goals again. Further up the pitch, Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani and Federico Higuain make up one of the strongest central midfields in MLS, while wingers Finlay and Justin Meram both provide a goal threat and assists for the free-scoring Kamara.

With offseason additions like Norwegian striker Ola Kamara – no relation to Kei – and Danish wide man Emil Larsen also joining an already deep squad, the immediate future is looking very bright indeed.

Trouble on the horizon?

While Crew SC have no obvious weaknesses, one issue to keep an eye on is the contract dispute currently surrounding Kei Kamara. The former Middlesbrough striker is understandably looking for a pay rise after hitting 22 goals in 32 regular season appearances to finish runner-up to Sebastian Giovinco in the league MVP voting, but tellingly a deal has yet to be agreed. Things are cordial for the moment, with the Sierra Leone international a full participant in preseason over recent weeks, but things could get messy if the situation isn’t resolved soon.

The club’s other Kamara represents a nice insurance piece as a full Norwegian international with an impressive scoring record in his home country, but how he will fare in MLS remains to be seen.

Update (02/03/16): It's good news for Crew SC, as they've finally managed to tie Kamara down to a Designated Player deal until 2018. Now everyone goes into the new season happy and ready to hit the ground running.

Key man: Kei Kamara

As previously alluded to, Kamara was nothing short of a revelation during his first season back in the States, serving as the catalyst for everything Crew SC did in the final third. If they want to make it back to MLS Cup, it’s paramount that they don’t let the contract situation escalate.

One to watch: Cedrick Mabwati

Cedrick was largely limited to a super sub role after arriving from Real Betis last summer, but his displays off the bench still proved key to Crew SC's deep postseason run. The Congolese winger will have to fight for playing time again this term with Finlay and Justin Meram firmly entrenched in the line-up, but he certainly looks like he could be a difference-maker in MLS.

Predicted regular season finish: 1st Eastern Conference

Columbus are blessed with a deep squad and arguably the most balanced line-up in MLS, as well as one of the league’s best and brightest head coaches. As long as the situation with Kamara is taken care of, they should be among the top contenders for MLS Cup once again.

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