The Columbus Crew are able to focus their DP slots on veteran attackers due to their ability to build a team on a budget. Having won MLS Cup in 2008 and the Supporters’ Shield in 2008 & 2009 (plus a runners-up finish in 2015), their continued success in the DP era is a testament to their methodology. These signings have been low-risk for their on-the-field play; that said, questions have been raised about how these players fit into the system and the locker room as a whole.
Last week, we continued our tour of MLS Designated Player report cards by looking at FC Dallas. A fair number of readers responded that they thought Dallas’ C+ rating was criminal given their recent success with young signings like Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo. However, all DP signings have equal weight on the club’s final average grade. Yes, the young guns have been low-risk, high reward prospects. This success only came after a few misfired attempts at landing veteran talent (remember Denilson?). These impact the final grade as much as the recent signings, and that’s why Dallas barely got a passing grade.
This week, we’ll move onto a team that’s only made four DP signings in their history. At the beginning of May, this looked like a pretty easy piece to write. Now Kei Kamara is gone. Thanks, guys.
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
Columbus Crew SC (founded 1996)
Favorite Fruitless Rumor: Radamel Falcao, January 2016
Age When Signed: 35
Average Base Salary per Season: $395,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.660
Barros Schelotto built a reputation as a respectable attacker long before heading to America. At 12, he was added to Gimnasia La Plata’s academy in native Argentina. Between the ages of 18 and 24, Barros Schelotto earned 184 appearances with GLP, scoring 49 goals in the process. During this time, he also saw the first of ten international appearances with Argentina, having also been a part of the gold medal winning U23 side at the Pan American Games.
In 1997, he was transferred to flagship club Boca Juniors and saw the field 300 times with Boca, adding 86 goals and becoming something of a club legend in the process. However, as he began to age, Barros Schelotto saw his playing time start to diminish, and he joined MLS for $250k a year in 2007. After two solid years (including an MVP award in 2008 after a remarkable 19 assists amidst winning MLS Cup), Columbus gave him a deserved raise and made him the club’s first DP.
Already assimilated into the league, it was business as usual for Barros Schelotto in 2009, scoring an MLS personal-best 12 goals and making All-Star First XI in the process. The team won a second straight Supporters’ Shield award before losing in the Eastern Conference Semis to Real Salt Lake (remember when they were in the East?). 2010 marked an earlier exit in the playoffs, as the Crew lost in the Quarterfinals to eventual champions Colorado Rapids (again, Colorado=Eastern). On the verge of 38, Barros Schelotto decided he wanted to retire in his home country and took off.
Volunteering to play for free, Barros Schelotto made 17 appearances with his former childhood club (Gimnasia La Plata), adding three goals on the wing. After retiring, he went into management, starting with Argentina’s Club Atletico Lanus (winning the Copa Sudamericana) before moving to a preliminary deal with Italy’s Palermo. However, he caught a snag with getting his UEFA coaching credentials and instead landed with Boca Juniors earlier this year.
Columbus hit a jackpot on their first try. Barros Schelotto is recognized as one of the greatest players to wear the Crew emblem, complete with both individual and team success. His price point was keen and he played well above the usual expectations for an attacker in their mid-30s.
Age When Signed: 32
Average Base Salary per Season: $216,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.687
A forward out of Peru, Mendoza spent his first three years at Sporting Cristal, making his mark with 100 appearances and 31 goals. Belgium’s Club Brugge came calling, and from 2000-2004 he scored 54 times in 129 appearances, most notably a only goal in a Champions League win over AC Milan. After that, he bounced around Russia, France, and Romania through 2010, acting as a reliable goalscorer at many of his stops while adding 44 international caps.
Fresh off of the successful opening three years of Barros Schelotto’s tenure, Columbus added a second 30-something year old attacker. Mendoza joined in the summer transfer window and made eight appearances (only one of which was a start) in his first season, scoring twice and helping Columbus to second in the Eastern Conference.
Mendoza’s goal is third in the video below. I would’ve linked directly to it, but there’s a beautiful Danny Cruz goal ahead of it. Watch that, too.
In his only full season wearing the yellow, he started 25 games, scoring 13 times with a shots-on-goal rate of 41.9%. The team was knocked out early in the wild-card round (again to Colorado), and Columbus opted for a change of pace with their attack.
Mendoza ended up in Mexico with Atlante for two years before finishing where it all started with a pair of clubs in Peru. He’s seemingly fallen off of the grid entirely, doing only one interview: a feature with a Peruvian website who seemed most interested on whether or not he had an affair in a garage once. Journalism!
While not a failure by any means, he didn’t bring the impact that the Crew was anticipating. He wasn’t able to pick up any slack that an aging Barros Schelotto was leaving, as Mendoza’s best days were clearly behind him. He has mostly been forgotten in MLS circles.
Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $588,750
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.660
The first of two sons of retired Argentine defender Jorge Higuain, Federico is the older brother of Napoli striker Gonzalo. The elder Higuain (also known as Pipa, meaning ‘big nose’) came up in the River Plate youth system but never found success with their first team. He was loaned to a few second division teams before sticking with Godoy Cruz and Colon. During his time with Colon, Argentinian journalist Daniel Colasimone described him as putting in “hard work on and off the ball, and (an) affable personality made him well liked wherever he played in Argentina.”Remember that in a second.
Higuain joined the Crew in July 2012 and is a rare instance of a mid-season DP signing who hit the ground running. Usually, July transfers flop during their first half-season in MLS as they acclimate to the travel and physicality of MLS. For Higuain’s first thirteen games, he scored five goals and added seven assists, winning MLS Newcomer of the Year despite playing just over a third of the season. Across 2013-2015, Higuain was a consistent performer with between 8-11 goals and 7-9 assists in each of those seasons. 2015 was an immensely successful campaign for the club as they won the Eastern Conference before a loss in a gritty MLS Cup final against Portland Timbers.
More on Pipa in a bit.
Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,000,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.570
Born in Sierra Leone, Kamara moved to a suburb of Los Angeles as a refugee at age 16. He attended California State University, Dominguez Hills before spending two seasons in USL with Orange County Blue Star. Kamara decided to declare for the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, taken ninth (after Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty but eight slots higher than future USMNT forward Jozy Altidore) by Columbus. In his first stint with the Crew, he scored five goals in 36 games, struggling to find starting playing time as he was developing. He was traded to San Jose for veteran midfielder Brian Carroll, scoring twice in 12 games before another trade, this time to Sporting Kansas City. It was in Kansas City that he blossomed, scoring 38 goals between 2009-2012. He formed an intimidating partnership with Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong and played a major part in the team’s growth to an eventual MLS Cup victory in 2013.
However, on opening day of 2013, Kamara wasn’t in the roster for SKC. Leading up to the season, Kamara had a trial with Stoke City, ultimately not earning a contract but making waves across the Premier League. He was loaned to Norwich City, assuring he would miss the first 10 games of MLS’ season. In 11 matches with Norwich, he scored once (against Everton) but earned the admiration of the Norwich faithful due to his charismatic and enthusiastic personality (again, remember this in a minute). He ultimately signed with Championship side Middlesborough later that year, getting 25 appearances and four goals with the side through 2014.
A failed attempt to renew his work visa nixed a potential move to Wolverhampton Wanderers before the 2014/15 season. He went through MLS’ allocation order and landed with the team that had drafted him. He immediately settled in for the best year of his career, tying Sebastian Giovinco for the Golden Boot with 22 goals and adding a career-high eight assists, linking up with Higuain and Ethan Finlay to great effect.
It was after the 2015 season that Kamara was offered a DP deal, only after he’d threatened to hold out until a new deal could be reached. Despite Columbus’ rocky start, Kamara was in his usual form, scoring five goals in nine games.
May 7, 2016:
If there’s one way to piss a goal-scorer off, it’s by keeping them from scoring a goal.
You’ve probably read plenty about plenty by now, so I’ll be brief: On May 7, Columbus played Montreal to a 4-4 draw. Kamara, on a brace, was prepared to take a penalty kick to seal his first career hat trick. However, Higuain took the ball (despite both being deemed PK takers by coach Gregg Berhalter) and scored the goal. Kamara called out Higuain for being selfish (again, he was loved in Argentina), and Kamara was traded for allocation money and various draft picks five days later.
For two players who carry reputations of being beloved teammates and good locker room guys, this may seem out of character. However, former teammates have said that both players trend toward moodiness when results aren’t coming. As the Crew were mired in a long winless rut, the two main attacking pieces weren’t gelling. As Kamara alluded to in his post-match interview that night, they never had a connection on the field as distributor and scorer. To simplify this whole ordeal: if there’s one way to piss a goal-scorer off, it’s by keeping them from scoring a goal.
We can go back and forth about how this should have been handled and which player was right/wrong. However, it’s impossible to overlook the early-season swoon that the Crew went through this year. This was a very public showing of what was likely a private issue for the club as well.
Higuain Grade: B+
Kamara Grade: C-
Average Signing Age: 31.25
Average Base Salary: $549,937.50
Average Grade: B
This was the toughest grade to figure out so far, but I think it’s representative. All four of their signings have been effective by pure production numbers, with each averaging a goal or assist every two matches. However, Mendoza’s stint didn’t lead to post-season success, and the Crew struggled for Kamara’s nine-game DP stint. It’s impossible to know how well the rest of their 2016 season would go had they let the waves settle and tried to get Kamara & Higuain back on the same page, but given how the offense has looked with Ola Kamara up front, it’s easy to envision Kei thriving by this point.
What can we take from Columbus’ quartet? The Crew has yet to sign a player who wasn’t a proven talent in another league. All four were forwards who were in or exiting their prime. Columbus is able to make this work given their track record of producing and signing affordable defensive/midfield talent. That said, the club doesn’t rely on filling DP slots, never having three on the roster at any given time. The rumored Falcao transfer would fit the “proven attacker” label to a T, but his pricetag would likely be far above any of their previous four signings. It’ll be interesting to watch how they approach their open slots as the transfer window reopens this summer.
Next week: Sporting Kansas City
Special thanks to Andrew King of MLSsoccer.com for answering questions for this installment.