Last month's signing of free agent forward Kevin Molino on a multiyear deal requiring targeted allocation money was a clear flex of strength by the Crew.
It signaled to the rest of Major League Soccer that the MLS Cup champions are gunning for another title in 2021.
The Crew already had one of the best front fours in the league in Gyasi Zardes, Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos and either Luis Diaz or Derrick Etienne Jr.
But when looking at Columbus, the 30-year-old Molino, one of the top targets in MLS free agency, saw opportunity rather than competition for playing time.
“With the history of the club and (they) just won the championship, they're still looking to make moves to stay atop the league and to win again,” Molino told The Dispatch recently. “It was an easy move for me to make.”
Since entering MLS with Orlando City in 2015, Molino has been one of the most productive wing midfielders in the league. His first season was shortened by a torn knee ligament, but he rebounded to score 11 goals with eight assists in 2016 before moving to another expansion club, Minnesota United.
He tore a ligament in his other knee in his second year with Minnesota, then had the most productive season of his MLS career in 2020. With nine goals and four assists in 1,264 minutes, Molino finished second among all midfielders and in the top 10 of all players with an average of a goal or assist in every 97.23 minutes.
Molino added four goals in three games in the 2020 playoffs.
“We've added one of the best wingers in the league,” Crew coach Caleb Porter said of Molino last month. “What made him so desirable is just how multifaceted he is and how complete he is. When you're looking at wingers and what we need, he really brings it all."
Molino spent 10 seasons with the same coach, Adrian Heath, in Orlando — beginning in the United Soccer League in 2011 — and Minnesota. He said he felt it was time to look for new challenges. Molino also is not shy in saying that he believes he’s joining a more talented team.
The native of Trinidad and Tobago told Caribbean network Sportsmax.tv that the Crew has “more quality players,” which irked some Minnesota fans. He stood by his comments but clarified that it wasn’t a dig at Minnesota.
"When you look at the players like (Darlington) Nagbe, Zardes — these are the top players in the league,” Molino said. "This is why they won the championship, let's be honest.”
He has long admired the way teams play under Porter, saying he had interest in playing for his Portland teams in the past. Molino also has strong relationships with Nagbe and Zardes, formed from matches between the U.S. men’s national team and Trinidad. Molino said Nagbe texted him shortly after Molino signed, telling him to reach out if he needed anything.
But the pitch to join the Crew was as important to his decision over other clubs as his personal connections to players on the roster. Molino said the conversation wasn’t about soccer at all, and more focused on him as a person.
“It was a different conversation,” Molino said. “A conversation that you would want to hear as a player coming into a new environment, and make me feel more excited than anything to come."
Molino has been a part of two expansion teams, and helped open Minnesota’s new stadium in 2019. His challenge then was to be part of the building of a franchise with no history — quite different than joining the league’s first franchise.
Molino also is aware that he’s following the path of Stern John, one of his favorite Trinidadian players and the Crew’s fourth all-time leading scorer. The expectation is Molino will be a starter and a consistent scoring threat. But he’s not entering Columbus like he’ll be handed the role.
“I can't wait to fit in, but first I put in my work to be on the team,” he said. “It's not going to be a walk in the park. I'm going to have to work harder than I normally work to always stay on top of my game to fit in with this group.”
SOURCE: The Columbus Dispatch