For half of the 2011 season, the Columbus Crew looked poised to be the shock of the MLS season. Having completely overhauled their roster and parted with several key veterans, the Crew rode a very young squad to first place in the Eastern Conference mid-way through the season.
Eventually, the Crew began sliding toward the level most expected, and after squeezing into a wild card spot with the ninth best record in MLS, Columbus exited the playoffs early, heading into the off-season with plenty of questions.
What followed was an off-season devoid of big-ticket signings but some key departures. The Crew added some foreign bargains they hope can provide not only upgrades in the starting lineup but the leadership a maturing team needs.
The Crew parted ways with enigmatic Peruvian striker Andres Mendoza, who ruffled feathers in the locker room but still managed to score 13 goals. Columbus will be hoping Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas can fill that void after enjoying a successful stint with Herediano.
Vargas and returning starter Emilio Renteria will hope Chilean playmaker Milovan Mirosevic lives up to the hype being placed on his arrival. The former Universidad Catolica standout can create chances as well as score them himself, but the Crew will need him to adapt to MLS quickly, something not all South American playmakers do right away. Columbus had one adapt quickly in Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but he came to MLS with a much better pedigree than Mirosevic.
The Crew will need some familiar faces to continue working their magic in midfield. Eddie Gaven has become the most established attacking figure on the team, but young midfielder Dilly Duka looks poised for a breakout season. He impressed with the US Under-23 national team, and while he isn’t a natural left winger, he will have the left wing role to himself after the departure of Robbie Rogers.
Another key for Columbus will be the continued evolution of midfielder Tony Tchani. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft endured an injury-plagued 2011, being traded twice in the process. He’s being penciled in as a defensive midfield option even though he’s not your classic ball-winning midfielder. If he can cover ground and dominate the middle, as he was expected to do when he left the University of Virginia two years ago, the Crew midfield could be one of the better ones in the East.
Defensively, the Crew boast a tough center back tandem in Chad Marshall and Julius James, but concussion concerns for Marshall leave Columbus vulnerable. James was a revelation for the Crew after D.C. United let him go, but Columbus needs a healthy Marshall and James to be a playoff team.
If there is a team that looks a signing away from a playoff push, it’s the Crew. Whether they add a tough defensive midfielder, or a proven forward, Columbus needs a player or two more to keep up with the other improving teams in the East (like D.C. United and Chicago). Without some added reinforcements, or some breakout years from multiple youngsters, the Crew will look like the team that limped to the finish at the end of 2011 rather than the surprising overachievers who began 2011.
2012 COLUMBUS CREW TEAM OUTLOOK
TOP PLAYERS: Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall, Will Hesmer
KEY ADDITIONS: Milovan Mirosevic, Olman Vargas, Carlos Mendes, Ethan Finlay
KEY LOSSES: Andres Mendoza, Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo, Josh Gardner, Jeff Cunningham, Dejan Rusmir.
MUST HAVE A BIG YEAR: Milovan Mirosevic. The Crew badly lacked a creative spark in midfield last year, and Mirosevic has been brought in specifically to add just that. If he can have an impact like recent MLS attacking midfield additions Mauro Rosales or David Ferreira, Columbus’ offense will have a sorely-needed upgrade. If not, they may have to turn to Dilly Duka.
BREAKOUT PLAYER TO WATCH: Dilly Duka. A skillful and tenacious midfielder who likes running at defenders and delivering killer passes, Duka showed signs last season of developing into a difference maker. This year, he comes in with experience and the confidence of doing well with the US Under-23 national team.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Will the Crew attack improve? Losing Andres Mendoza and Robbie Rogers was tough, but the Crew believe the combination of Mirosevic and Vargas will provide the spark the offense needs. Some interesting options to keep an eye on are rookie Ethan Finlay and second-year players Justin Meram and Bernardo Anor.
OUTLOOK: Like so many other MLS teams, the Crew’s fortunes will rest on the quality of their new signings. Mirosevic and Vargas boast impressive resumes that would suggest they’re ready to contribute. Just as important to Columbus this year will be the continued maturation of their young players. Gaven will provide quality, but players like Duka, rookie Ethan Finlay and second-year forward Justin Meram need to step up to give Robert Warzycha options. With Sebastian Miranda playing well at right back and Marshall and Jones returning in central defense, the Crew should continue to be a tough team to break down, but a lack of depth could leave Columbus vulnerable if Marshall deals with any more injuries.
Columbus overachieved last year and it’s tough to see the Crew doing it again. Unless newcomers Mirosevic and Vargas play like all stars, Columbus look destined to fall short in the playoff race in the East.