Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
Not long into his tenure as owner of the Columbus Crew, Anthony Precourt hit the reset button when it became clear that the Crew would miss the playoffs for a third straight season.
Over the past eight months, the Crew waved goodbye to familiar faces such as head coach Robert Warzycha, technical director Brian Bliss, and players Chad Marshall, Eddie Gaven, and Andy Gruenebaum. Stepping in to lead the rebuilding job is a young coach in Gregg Berhalter, who brings a more analytical approach and was able to impress Precourt in order to get the job.
Berhalter, a former Major League Soccer and U.S. Men’s National Team defender, massively upgraded the Crew back line that suffered from injury and inexperience last season. The Crew added USMNT defender Michael Parkhurst and Costa Rican international pair Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis.
At the same time, this team showed late last season that it still has some pieces in place for the future. Wil Trapp stepped into the starting lineup midway through the year and became an integral player, Josh Williams had a breakout season at centerback, and Dominic Oduro scored a career-high 13 goals in a full season.
While there are plenty of unknowns heading into this season, one known quantity is Designated Player Federico Higuain. After his first full season in MLS, the club will be hoping for an improvement on his 11 goal-nine assist season from a year ago.
With a new owner, new head coach, and new scoreboard in tow, the Crew are set to take off into a new era in the 2014 MLS season. Here is a closer look at the 2014 Columbus Crew:
COLUMBUS CREW SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 12-17-5, 41 points (Eighth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Michael Parkhurst, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Waylon Francis, Steve Clark, Hector Jimenez, Ben Sweat, Brad Stuver, Daniel Paladini
KEY LOSSES: Chad Marshall, Eddie Gaven, Andy Gruenebaum, Glauber, Danny O’Rourke
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Michael Parkhurst. The Crew nabbed one of the best pickups of the offseason with the acquisition of Parkhurst on a non-DP salary, only giving up a first round pick in the 2014 MLS Draft. Parkhurst should help shore up a defense that conceded 46 goals last season.
PRESSURE IS ON: Federico Higuain. The Argentine playmaker scored 11 goals and added nine assists last year but still struggled in big games as he tried to play through some injuries that were clearly hampering him. Now healthy, Higuain will be counted on to help not only facilitate the Crew offense but also to score more goals himself. The question will be if the Designated Player can live up to the expectations.
Even though Gregg Berhalter is a former defender, the early signs of his coaching tenure have seen an offensive explosion.
The Crew ended their preseason with a confidence-boosting 4-1 victory over defending MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City to take the Disney Pro Soccer Classic crown. Jairo Arrieta, Justin Meram, Bernardo Añor, and Federico Higuain all scored in the victory.
“I think it’s important, any time you’re playing for something you want to win,” Berhalter told SBI in a phone interview. “It was a good performance and overall a good tournament by the group. Obviously we’re pleased by the result.
“The attitude throughout (preseason) has been excellent and it’s been a great group to work with so far in terms of taking the information in and working hard and pushing themselves when they needed to push.”
With the departure of Gruenebaum following last season, the Crew look set to put new signing Steve Clark out between the pipes in their opener, after starting the final of the Disney Pro Soccer Classic. Brad Stuver and Matt Lampson will be fighting for the backup position.
After a season filled with injuries and inconsistency, Berhalter and the Crew front office have turned the back line into a position of strength. Once Michael Parkhurst, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Waylon Francis, and Chad Barson all gel together, on paper they could put together one of the best back lines in MLS. Add to that Josh Williams, Tyson Wahl, and rookie Ben Sweat, and suddenly the Crew have some depth to work with.
That depth will be important come May/June when Parkhurst and Gonzalez more than likely head to Brazil to feature at the World Cup.
“We had some good guys that moved on and we needed to replace them, and I think we did that in a good way,” Berhalter said. “In Michael, you have a very experienced defender in this league, a very smart player and a good leader. In Giancarlo, you have a young international who has a bright future ahead of him, and Waylon I see the same way. Together with the other group of guys we already have, I think we have a solid back group.”
Wil Trapp returns from a short training stint with Dutch club PEC Zwolle, ready to play in his first full season, while Bernardo Añor, Hector Jimenez, and Justin Meram hope to take the next step forward in their development. Toni Tchani has proved to be a solid MLSer and should help the team in the middle of the park.
At the top of the field, Jairo Arrieta is being expected to rebound from a disappointing season, but after earning a new contract, Dominic Oduro is expected to reproduce his career-high 13 goals.
The Crew’s success though will hinge on Designated Player Federico Higuain. The Argentine playmaker is an expert free kick taker but even though he put up 11 goals and nine assists last season, his performances were still underwhelming.
On the whole, the Crew did improve their squad during the offseason and should give themselves a better shot of making the playoffs this year. While they didn’t make the kind of headline-grabbing moves that Toronto FC, D.C. United, or the Philadelphia Union made, the Crew are well positioned to put together a solid MLS season.
“For us to talk about winning the MLS Cup we need all our guys to have good seasons,” Berhalter said. “We’re not a group that’s going to depend on one person. We have some creative players (like) Federico but it’s a team effort for us to be successful.”
They may not be title contenders in year one of Berhalter’s reign, but this season should provide a stepping stone for further success.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Wil Trapp should volley occasionally. But then he would have to change his name.