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Every year, when the beginning of March rolls around, the MLS season starts with a sense of optimism for supporters around the league. This year is no different for the fans of the black and yellow of the Columbus Crew. It’s a season about new beginnings, fresh starts, redemption and revenge. 2014 is a season that will begin to define the shape and trajectory of this storied MLS franchise for years to come. The Crew comes into the season with a new manager, Gregg Berhalter, and the first full season for new owner Anthony Precourt. It’s tempting, as a Crew supporter, to want instant success, but it’s imperative to use caution and patience as the season takes shape.
In terms of player acquisitions and transfers, the Crew had a pretty major overhaul in the offseason. If not for the complete shuffling around up north in Toronto, the Crew could arguably claim to be the most changed team in the Eastern Conference. Apart from the new coach, the Crew ended up losing stalwart goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum (option declined), Eddie Gaven (retirement), Chad Marshall (Seattle) and Danny O’Rourke (option declined).
All 4 of these men are players who had a tremendous impact on the Crew last year and throughout the last decade. It’s always going to be difficult to replace even one of them, but losing all 4 at once is devastating. Chad Marshall has been one of the rocks in the Crew’s defense for a long time, although it was probably time for him to move on. Gaven’s shock retirement announcement after missing the majority of last season through injury won’t help to relieve the pressure on the midfield for the upcoming season either.
In order to ease some of the burden left by the outgoing players, coach Gregg Berhalter brought in some very fascinating players. USMNT player Michael Parkhurst from FC Augsburg in Germany, Daniel Paladini (trade with Chicago), Waylon Francis (Herediano), Steve Clark (Honefoss BK), Hector Jimenez (Los Angeles) and Giancarlo Gonzalez (Valerenga). Waylon Francis, in particular, has caught my eye since he came onto the Crew’s radar. An extremely attacking left back, his time in Costa Rica was spent bombing up and down the left flank. His acquisition is one that I definitely see as a more aggressive counter to the conservative options at left back of Agustin Viana and Tyson Wahl. Francis joins his Costa Rican compatriot Giancarlo Gonzalez to slot into the back 4 (3?, more on that later) when the season starts. Daniel Paladini also adds some more depth to the Crew midfield. A lot of the goal scoring burden is going to fall onto the gifted feet of Jairo Arrieta. I’ve always been a big fan of Jairo, but he needs to get back into his form of 2012 pretty quickly. It will also be interesting to see if Dominic Oduro can recreate his sensational form 2013 form that made him the Crew’s top scorer last campaign.
The Crew is coming into this year off the back of 2 consecutive playoff-missing years. Every season since the MLS Cup triumph in 2008 has been downhill, and there hasn’t really been a lot of optimism recently about any momentum in the opposite direction. Columbus had 17 losses last year; joint 3rd most in the league, while only recording 5 draws in the entire season. It’s imperative that some of those losses be converted into draws, at the very least. 17 losses for a team attempting to make the playoffs are unacceptable and it’s a problem area that Gregg Berhalter needs to address.
Berhalter has a reputation for being slightly more conservative manager after being sacked from his previous club, Hammarby IF in Sweden, for not playing attractive enough football. Even if his reputation is true, he’s already shown signs of changing the footballing landscape of the black and yellow. For a couple of years under previous coach Robert Warzycha, the Crew was a dull, defensive side, not really capable of lighting up defenses despite skill players like Higuain. Berhalter has come in and made some impressive forward steps towards alleviating this. There were rumblings in the press that he would opt for a back 3, and keep Higuain behind 2 strikers. I don’t think that will be his first choice starting formation on opening day, but I do think it’s a viable option as the season progresses. In addition to making some rumblings with his potential tactics on the pitch, Coach Berhalter has also made some headlines off of it. His public words about Toronto FC player Matias Laba not being good enough/too expensive, prompted Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson to call him out, indirectly, on Twitter. In one way, it’s refreshing to see a new manager doing things in his own way and I’m curious to see how that pans out.
2014 is going to be a great year for the Columbus Crew. It’s about time that the Crew was once again considered an MLS power in the East, and I think Berhalter has created a team that can do just that.
(image courtesy of mlssoccer.com)