The Columbus Crew suffered nearly a dozen injuries, played an entire month where they only gained one point, and recently stood 17th out of the 19 teams in MLS.
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Despite all that, they find themselves sitting in 4th place in the Eastern Conference, in playoff position one-third of the way into the season.
Twenty-four players have seen action for the Crew, on a roster of 30. Ten players have made their debut, including three of the 2012 draft class. Eight players have scored for the team. There are 23 players in MLS that have more goals than the leading scorers for Columbus (Eddie Gaven and Justin Meram with three each).
Yet, they are on course for a playoff berth.
March – 2 Wins, 1 Loss, 0 Ties (6 points)
Columbus brought in a pair of internationals to fix the offense, Milovan Mirosevic and Olman Vargas. They were expected to spark an offense that struggled throughout 2011. With all eyes on Mirosevic for the season opener in Colorado, the Rapids midfield shackled the Crew and they started off with an uninspiring 2-0 loss after an offseason of cautious optimism.
The Crew returned to Columbus to face off against the expansion Montreal Impact in front of 18,000 fans. The home opener could not have gone better as both Mirosevic and Vargas scored and Columbus cruised to victory.
April – 0 Wins, 3 Losses, 1 tie (1 point)
The confidence of two consecutive wins was wiped away in 12 minutes as the New York Red Bulls tore into the Crew defense for two quick goals. The Red Bulls wouldn’t let up until they registered a 4-1 destruction of the black and gold. At no point did Columbus look competitive, serving as a bad omen for the rest of the month.
Columbus would follow up their dreadful performance against New York with a lifeless effort against a struggling Philadelphia Union team. Losing to the Red Bulls offensive juggernaut could be explained. A loss to the Union stung even more. The offense only recorded one shot on goal and the defense made a key mistake to give away a penalty kick.
After two terrible performances to start the month, the Crew put together a couple of solid performances where they controlled the flow of play, but it still only resulted in one point. The punchless Crew offense was awakened by two Gaven goals against Houston, but they let the Dynamo tie it up.
The following week, Columbus looked the much better team against the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps. They lead in nearly every statistical category but the most important one, goals. A misdirected cross by Lee Young-Pyo dropped over goalie Andy Gruenebaum to send the Crew to their third defeat in four games.
At the end of April, Columbus was struggling in all parts of the game. The two wins in March looked like flukes, and a very long season was on the horizon.
May – 3 Wins, 0 Losses, 2 Ties (11 points)
The outlook for May was bleak, facing three games on two difficult west coast road trips. The Crew had slipped up against lesser competition and faced long odds to turn around their fortunes.
Even before they headed west, the injury bug bit again. Defensive stalwart Chad Marshall, midfielder Kirk Urso, and forwards Aaron Schoenfeld and Olman Vargas were all lost to injury. The load fell firmly on the misfiring Emilio Renteria, seldom-used Justin Meram, and any healthy defender they could find.
The offensive woes continued as they withstood the pressure from a Portland Timbers team looking for a win at home. The Crew earned a draw, and quickly matched their point total from April.
Columbus controlled the following game against FC Dallas, and Meram scored on a long range strike to give the Crew the lead. It would mark the first time Columbus had lead in nearly a month and sparked a turnaround.
The Crew followed up their win at home with two impressive road performances. They withstood an early San Jose onslaught, and were 4 minutes away from stealing the win before the Quakes tied it.
Columbus followed the same plan a few days later in Seattle. They took the Sounders best shot and Meram counterpunched in the first half to give the Crew the lead. Even the struggling Renteria found a goal off a long range volley to seal the black and gold’s first win against Seattle in 7 tries.
The Crew would finish off the month strong with a solid 2-1 win against Eastern Conference rival Chicago Fire. Every break Columbus wasn’t getting was now falling their way, and the Crew’s place in the standings showed.
While Columbus sits in playoff position, the offense ranks 13th in the 19-team league, and they have not found a replacement for Mendoza. The goals have been coming from all over, but they haven’t been consistent, resulting in four shutouts in 12 games.
The team has been pursuing an unnamed Argentine playmaker to spur the offense as a Designated Player, but a midseason signing is difficult to integrate into the team.
New signing Jairo Arrieta will be available soon to bolster the attack.
The bright spot is along the backline. The defense is tied for 4th in the league, giving up a little more than a goal a game. Career backup goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum has four shutouts, while Josh Williams has been outstanding after getting playing time during the recent injury crisis. Sebastian Miranda and Nemanja Vukovic are solidifying the outside back spots. The defense is in capable hands, especially with defenders like Marshall, Julius James, and Carlos Mendes returning to health.
The focus again falls on the offense as a busy summer of games commences. Without scoring, it’s hard to see them staying in the playoff hunt. Visions of a moribund Crew team from April return. If Renteria and Meram’s form continue or Arrieta proves to be a missing link in front of goal, then the Crew certainly will move up the Eastern Conference table.