Throughout the offseason, the Crew were looking forward to Federico Higuain pulling the strings on offense, while leading the team to the playoffs and beyond.
But the technical staff also went to work, adding three new starters on the defensive side, shoring up what had become a unit that leaked late-game goals.
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A Strong Core
Mainstays such as Eddie Gaven, Andy Gruenebaum, Josh Williams, Danny O’Rourke, and Chad Marshall have now been teamed up with offensive dynamite like Jairo Arrieta and Higuain. This group forms the backbone of the team, the core that the coaching staff built around – a strong group.
The concerns aren’t with the core, but with the new players. It’s still too soon to tell if Tyson Wahl, Agustin Viana, Dominic Oduro, and Glauber will be astute additions. Getting one player to fit into the team takes time; getting four to settle in is a more challenging test.
Soccer relies on timing, nuance, and understanding. Much of the action comes off the ball and a lot of a player’s success is through his teammates.
Through three games, Higuain has averaged 122 touches per game. He’s making split second decisions to spur the offense, and so far finding success.
In 2012, his closest teammates likely would have been Eddie Gaven on the right wing, Dilly Duka wide left, with Jairo Arrieta working in front of him. This year? Gaven and Ben Speas play to the left, while speedy Dominic Oduro is on the right. The only holdover is Arrieta at forward.
Higuain hasn’t had that familiar continuity yet. He often completes the pass, but the magic is built off of the innate sense of what a teammate is going to do.
Higuain isn’t the only player adapting to new arrivals. Returning players contributed 58% of the team’s 2012 minutes. The team let six players go that logged over 1000 minutes played. Sebastian Miranda and Milovan Mirosevic each played over 2000 minutes, key cogs that had started developing that rhythm.
Midfielder Danny O’Rourke developed a partnership with Chris Birchall over the course of last season. The duo were often partnered down the stretch in front of the defense. With Birchall gone, O’Rourke now works with Agustin Viana.
Both wings are experiencing similar beginnings. The Crew kept Josh Williams, but he’s moved to right back. A defender first, Williams is also charged with adding to the attack. He has to decipher the movements of the player in front of him (Dominic Oduro at right midfield) and make a split second decision whether to push forward or not.
The left side of the team faces the same hurdles as Wahl performs double duty when the Crew has the ball. Attacking moves are built off trust and understanding, formed in hours of training and game situations. A wrong move will leave Williams or Wahl upfield without any defensive coverage behind them.
On the Clock
Change is inevitable. No team kept 100% of the same personnel from 2012 to 2013, but the Montreal Impact and San Jose Earthquakes had low turnover. The Colorado Rapids turned over nearly half the team.
There is no written rule, but the bigger the change, the longer it will likely take for the team to gel. As proof, the Impact are the only perfect team in MLS, while Colorado has looked lost on the field. Montreal has already built that level of instinct with each other and the Rapids look like they hardly know each other.
The bad news – the Crew rank 18th out of 19 in roster turnover, just above the Rapids. There are times when it looks like they are playing pickup, runs aren’t made, or passes are mistimed. Given the time it takes to develop that little extra understanding of your teammates, this is no surprise.
There is too much teamwork in soccer to be hammered out in preseason. While the Impact did that last season, Crew are busy trying to cram it in to this season. With high expectations of playoffs and beyond, fans are hoping that the coaching staff brought in a bunch of fast learners.