mls Nashville SC

Race to the top, how the MLS Cup finalists were built: Columbus Crew

Hany Mukhtar keeping an eye on Columbus’s Jonathan Mensah. Photo courtesy Major League Soccer.

The goal for Major League Soccer teams is to win MLS Cup*. Nashville SC took one of this year’s finalists (Columbus Crew) to extra time, but over the course of the year, they were still two of the top teams in the league. The Sounders were by far the league’s strongest team in expected goals terms – adjusted for competition – but suffered in the luck department. The Crew chugged along at about league-average, but got good luck (often secret code for “good finishing and goalkeeping,” as I explained here) to finish third in the stronger East – and if healthy, could have had a real chance to win Supporter’s Shield.

Anyway, as we look to the future, what can Nashville learn from the way these clubs are built? First, we take a look at Columbus, with the Sounders and some takeaways in the leadup to the Cup itself.

* The goal for Matt Doyle is to win the Supporter’s Shield. Being a more-difficult accomplishment does not make it equivalent to a championship, however.

Columbus Crew

The Crew have a bit of an eclectic build – and given that GM Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter are new hires within the past two years, that’s no surprise – but an effective one. Here are where their players came from.


  • Midfielder Sebastian Berhalter (19 yo, 224 min, -0.61 G+)
  • Defender Aboubacar Keita (20 yo, 1043 min, -0.56 G+)
  • Midfielder Aidan Morris (19 yo, 434 min, -0.14 G+)

Berhalter is the son of former Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter, and Keita grew up in nearby Westerville, Ohio. Their reasons for being Homegrown signings are obvious. Berhalter and Keita played a single year each at North Carolina and Virginia, respectively.

Morris is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.. He was recruited to the Crew Academy and signed as a natural homegrown prior to this season (after a year at Indiana University, where his career didn’t overlap with Lillard’s four years).

Draft picks

F Miguel Berry (23 yo, 0 min) – Selected in the 2020 SuperDraft after four years at University of San Diego. He’s Spanish but grew up in California, so doesn’t require an international slot.

Intra-league acquisitions

F Fanendo Adi (30 yo, 241 min, +0.06 G+) – originally acquired by Portland Timbers (under Caleb Porter) on a loan-with-purchase from FC Copenhagen. Signed by FC Cincinnati when they were still in USL, then claimed off waivers when he – like everyone – failed to find any success in the Queen City.

M Fatai Alashe (27 yo, 475 min, -0.79 G+) – Originally a draft pick of the San Jose Earthquakes after four years at Michigan State. He was signed by FC Cincinnati during their USL-MLS transition, and it went somewhat horribly (because FC Cincinnati). Columbus was able to get him on the cheap – for a second-round draft pick and performance-trigger allocation money – early in the 2020 season.

M Emmanuel Boateng (26 yo, 377 min, +0.16) – Traded this season from DC United in a straight-swap for defender Axel Sjöberg. Each player literally didn’t see the field for his outgoing club, and played regularly for his new one, so it was a mutually beneficial trade. Boateng entered the league in a transfer from Swedish side Helsingsborgs, heading to LA Galaxy after playing high school (and one year at UC-Santa Barbara) in California. The Ghanaian did require an international slot in his first year with LA despite his California roots. DC traded $250k allocation for him mid-season 2019.

W/F Derrick Etienne Jr. (24 yo, 1015 min, -0.85 G+) – Picked up in a preseason trial after New York Red Bulls (which had developed him through its academy) released him following the 2019 season – the second half of which NYRB had loaned him to FC Cincinnati, clearly finding him surplus to requirements.

D Waylon Francis (30 yo, 226 min, +0.28 G+) – Signed from CD Herediano prior to the 2014 season, he required an international slot 2014-16. Columbus traded him to Seattle Sounders for $50k allocation before 2018, but got him back for the same price after one year. He kinda counts in both this category and international acquisitions (though he was more directly acquired domestically, so he’s here).

D Jordan Hamilton (24 yo, 26 min, -0.06 G+) – Formerly a homegrown of Toronto FC, Hamilton (and an international roster slot plus $50k in allocation) headed to Columbus in exchange for forward Patrick Mullins and performance-based allocation money mid-season 2019. He should be eligible for Homegrown benefits, though Columbus’s official roster doesn’t list him as such.

M Hector Jimenez (32 yo, 431 min, +0.11 G+) – A 2011(!) draft pick of the LA Galaxy, the California native has been with Columbus since 2014, when he was traded in exchange for a second-round draft pick and allocation money.

GK Jon Kempin (27 yo, 0 min) – Acquired from LA Galaxy prior to the 2018 season in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.

GK Matt Lampson (31 yo, 0 min) – Signed as a free agent last offseason after time in Chicago, Minnesota, and LA (Galaxy). He initially entered the league as a Crew homegrown in 2012.

M Grant Lillard (25 yo, 0 min) – Lillard is actually a Chicago Fire Homegrown, whose path to Columbus went through Inter Miami CF. He played two years for the Fire, and spent the first half of this season in Fort Lauderdale before being traded to Columbus for a third-round draft pick. Columbus holds his HG rights.

M Darlington Nagbe (30 yo, 1300 min, -0.82 G+) – Acquired from Atlanta United for $1.05m combined allocation money and an international slot from Atlanta United last offseason. The price tag would probably have been higher in most circumstances but 1) he and his family are from Ohio and he had a strong personal preference to be closer to his family and in-laws, and 2) he has a strong personal relationship with Porter, who was his coach in Portland. A combo that no other club could replicate (obviously), and king of the good-luck moneyball moves.

GK Andrew Tarbell (27 yo, 623 min, 1.04 G/xG)- Traded from San Jose Earthquakes this preseason in exchange for $75k allocation money. He was initially a 2016 draft pick for the Quakes.

D Josh Williams (32 yo, 1119 min, +0.91 G+) – Picked in the 2017 re-entry draft from Toronto FC (which had claimed him on waivers the previous offseason). Was initially a discovery signing as an undrafted rookie by the Crew in 2010. He had been a four-year college player at Cleveland State.

F Gyasi Zardes (29 yo, 1849 min, +0.85 G+) – Traded from LA Galaxy prior to 2018 in a straight swap for Ola Kamara. The LA native ad been a homegrown of the Galaxy (somewhat spuriously, after playing for an affiliated local club) of the Galaxy for the first five years of his career, and has developed to the point where Columbus uses a Designated Player spot on him.

International acquisitions

D Harrison Afful (34 yo, 1968 min, -0.54 G+) – Discovery list signing on a free transfer from a team in Tunisia. He developed in Feyenoord’s Ghanaian Academy but never signed as a professional with the Dutch club.

M Artur (24 yo, 2008 min, +0.05 G+) – Signed on a loan-with-purchase agreement from São Paulo after being developed in that club’s academy. Columbus outbid the Brazilian side, which wanted to keep him despite the purchase option. He required an international slot his first two seasons before Columbus managed to get his green card through prior to 2019.

D Chris Cadden (24 yo, 409 min, -0.02 G+) – Signed on a free transfer after playing at Motherwell in his native Scotland. He takes an international slot.

W Luis Díaz (22 yo, 1291 min, +0.81 G+) – Signed as a young Designated Player after a transfer from Herediano in his native Costa Rica in the mid-summer transfer window last year. He takes up an international slot, but has been bought down from DP status.

D Jonathan Mensah (30 yo, 2277 min, -0.29 G+) – Signed as a Designated Player from Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala before the 2017 season. The Ghanaian initially required an international slot in addition to his DP designation, but Columbus turned around his green card in time for 2018 (that’s very fast).

W/M Youness Mokhtar (29 yo, 907 min, -0.56 G+) – Signed on a free transfer from Dutch club Stabæk using TAM (given it was a free transfer, that means he’s TAM-eligible on salary alone, making $533k for half the 2019 season) in the 2019 mid-summer transfer window. He takes up an international slot.

F Krisztián Németh (31 yo, 214 min, +0.03 G+) – Signed shortly before the end of the regular season from FC DAC 1904 Dunajska Streda in Slovakia. He’d played four of the previous six years in MLS (with Sporting KC and New England Revolution), but somehow neither of his clubs had picked him up a green card, so he occupies an international slot.

GK Eloy Room (31 yo, 1655 min, 0.92 G/xG) – Signed mid-season 2019 after impressing at the Gold Cup with the Curaçao national team. He takes an international slot. He was surplus to requirements at PSV in his native Netherlands, so likely acquired on the relative cheap (though the Crew didn’t disclose).

W Pedro Santos (31 yo, 1983 min, -0.10 G+) – Joined Columbus in the mid-summer transfer window in 2017, he’s a Designated Player signed on Discovery from Braga in his native Portugal. Even though he’s been in Columbus for 2.5 years, he still doesn’t have a green card and thus takes an international slot.

D/M Milton Valenzuela (22 yo, 1578 min +0.25 G+) – Signed on loan as a young DP from Newell’s Old Boys in his native Argentina prior to the 2018 season. Purchase option exercised at the conclusion of the loan. Would have required an international slot in 2019, but missed the season with an ACL injury and therefore didn’t count (accidental and unfortunate moneyball!). Has his green card now, and has also been bought down from DP status.

D Vito Wormgoor (32 yo, 117 min, -0.09 G+) – Signed on a free transfer from Norwegian club Brann in preseason. Would take an international slot, but missed nearly the whole season with injury.

M Lucas Zelarayan (28 yo, 1129 min, -1.96 G+) – An international and Designated player signed on a transfer from Liga MX’s Tigres.


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