Get used to hearing this phrase a lot: The Crew are not defending their MLS Cup title, but attacking the next one.
This is a classic coaching speech. But that neatly sums up strategy coach Caleb Porter, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and the rest of the trusted brains deployed this offseason as they acquire proven talent to complete a roster that fired all of the key players from last season’s championship. .
“People tell you ‘You are the champions, you defend the trophy.’ We don’t believe in any of those things, ”Porter said. “It’s a brand new trophy this year.”
The crew were one of the winners – if not the clear winner – of the Major League Soccer offseason. The club turned heads by signing the great Bradley Wright-Phillips as a forward behind starter Gyasi Zardes, one of the best wingers in the league in Kevin Molino, and one Longtime MLS Starter Perry Kitchen for the depth of the midfield.
With more talent potentially on the way soon, the crew opened the pre-season camp this week in Chula Vista, Calif. with a target on its back and a roster capable of turning the franchise into a constant contender that Porter and Bezbatchenko want it to be.
In a year when the Crew will open a new, state-of-the-art stadium, having another season in contention for the trophies seems just as vital as it is likely to happen.
“I think everyone is on the same page with this, the same with Caleb,” said goaltender Eloy Room. “We want to earn more. It won’t be easy because we have to start all over again but I think everyone now knows what it takes to become champion.
Crew roster is “defined”, but still looking to add talents
Sacking all of the MLS Cup starting lineup, along with starters Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos who missed the final due to COVID-19, the crew make an obvious favorite early in the season to reach the final again. The return of center-back Vito Wormgoor, who has missed most of the season with injury, is akin to adding another starter to a much-vaunted defense.
The only significant loss of personnel was alternate goaltender Andrew Tarbell, who recorded two shutouts in the playoffs, but the crew replaced him with Evan Bush, who has 184 career starts. The only position where the crew could still use a certain depth is at the rear right.
Porter said he believed the list was made and felt confident in Marlon Hairston at right-back, but that doesn’t mean the club are done adding to the roster before the start of the season.
“We’re always looking for exciting young players,” Porter said. “We feel like we love our group and the mix of youth and experience, but I think we recognize – (CTO) Pat (Onstad), myself and Tim – that by making sure we have some young guys who will tackle the issue of succession planning for the future a bit.
The crew didn’t just want to add depth just to win the MLS Cup for a second straight season – something that has happened three times but not since 2011-12. Porter will need depth to balance the lineups between MLS games and CONCACAF Champions League competition.
Porter said winning the Champions League is right behind the MLS Cup for the team’s overall goals. To beat the Mexican league teams that have dominated the tournament, the Crew need a roster with as many starting caliber players as possible.
Getting these new players to buy into Porter’s system and team culture is a priority in the first few weeks of camp before the Crew play their first Champions League game of the season on April 8.
“You can’t let stagnation set in,” Porter said. “But I think what helps with that is having new blood. Having eight new guys brings a little bit of tension to a certain extent because there is competition that is good and healthy.”