By VINCE MADURI
The Columbus Crew missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and will look to rebound this coming season behind several new faces.
Federico Higuain was the signing of the 2012 season after arriving from Argentine club Colon in midseason. In only 13 appearances, Higuain managed to create the third most chances per 90 minutes of play in the league.
The Crew will look to their playmaker to lead the club back to the postseason with help from fellow mid-season signing Jairo Arrieta and the recently acquired Dominic Oduro.
Columbus was one of the busier teams this winter on the international market, adding midfielders Matias Sanchez and Agustin Viana, as well as Brazilian defender Glauber. The Crew will be hoping those additions, along with having a full season of Higuain and Arrieta, can make the different between making and missing the playoffs.
Here is a closer look at Columbus Crew ahead of the 2013 MLS season:
COLUMBUS CREW SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 15-12-7, 52 points (sixth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Dominic Oduro, M Matías Sánchez, D/M Agustín Viana, D Gláuber, D Drew Beckie, F Ryan Finley, M Wil Trapp, D Tyson Wahl, D Chad Barson
KEY LOSSES: M Dilly Duka, GK William Hesmer, D Carlos Mendes, M Chris Birchall, D Sebastián Miranda, D Julius James, M Cole Grossman, F Olman Vargas, D Nemanja Vukovic, D Rich Balchan
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: F Dominic Oduro – The forward’s pace should help open up some more space for Higuain to work if Oduro plays in front of the Argentine. However, if preseason is any indication, it looks like Oduro will primarily line up on the right and work with Higuain in the build-up, as well as have the freedom to break into the box when an opening presents itself. Having someone of Oduro’s athletic ability will be an asset to the Crew no matter where he ends up getting the bulk of his minutes.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: GK Andy Gruenebaum – The goalkeeper is now the uncontested number one in Columbus after the breakout season Gruenebaum had in 2012. However, the Crew have massively reworked the back line this offseason, and it may take some time for the new group to gel so it will be up to the keeper to help the process as much as possible and keep them together.
As Federico Higuain gets a full season with Columbus, the Argentine should develop into one of the elite playmakers in the league. In the midfielder’s short stint with the club last season, Higuain was third in MLS in chances created per 90 minutes, and that was primarily with a striker that had just arrived as well. With the improved chemistry, the combination of Higuain and Jairo Arrieta should be even more lethal.
“[Higuain] is a good player,” head coach Robert Warzycha said. “He finds good spaces on the field where he can be effective.”
Now add to that combination one of the fastest players in the league in Dominic Oduro, who may be coming off a down year in 2012, but recently had a 12 goal output in 2011. Oduro is a proven finisher and should round out a terrific attacking triangle for Columbus to work with moving forward.
“Right now [Higuain and I] are trying to find that click,” Dominic Oduro told SBI after a preseason game in Orlando. “He can definitely serve me the ball and I think with my pace, we can have a good combination if we can get that going.”
“I think [Oduro] is doing great,” Warzycha said. “I think he is using his speed not just on offense but on defense too. He is getting in the right spots, pressuring players in the right way. I’m happy to have him.”
The acquisitions of Matias Sanchez and Agustin Viana received a little less hype than the Oduro trade, but the defensive midfielders have come together well and make for a very solid pairing. Sanchez seems to come forward more often than Viana, who holds his defensive position, but both are physical and look like good fits for MLS.
Tony Tchani and Danny O’Rourke will compete with Sanchez and Viana for playing time. Between the four, the Crew are set in defensive midfield.
Columbus’ back line will always include Chad Marshall and Josh Williams but the question is always where Williams lines up. The 24-year-old has been used at center back and both full back positions in the past and even though his versatility can be looked upon as a pro, Williams could benefit from having a singular defined role for an extended period of time.
Glauber has had some good moments and some bad in preseason since being acquired from Romanian club Rapid Bucuresti but if the Brazilian can find consistency, he can be an asset to Columbus, not just in defense but on set pieces as well.
The final thing to watch for the Crew this season is how much playing time is awarded to the stellar class of incoming home grown players and draft picks.
First round pick and Notre Dame product Ryan Finley looks to be firmly positioning himself as the primary back up to Jairo Arrieta and could compete for playing time if the forward can get on a hot streak.
Akron product Will Trapp will be stuck behind a loaded midfield this season, but has the talent to compete at this level while defenders Chad Barson and Drew Beckie will compete for playing time in what seems to be the most shallow area of a very deep Crew team.
Finally, with Will Hesmer gone, the reins are now fully in Andy Gruenebaum’s capable hands and he will be tasked with marshaling a back line which will inevitably have some young faces playing in it.