Inside MLS 2015 Season Preview: Columbus Crew SC

Columbus Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter guided the team back to the playoffs last year after implementing an expansive, possession-oriented approach.

Winslow Townson/Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

ESSENTIAL FACTS

Last year in a sentence: The philosophical and technical overhaul prompted a possession-oriented approach and a return to the postseason.

Offseason in a sentence: In addition to the new name, Crew SC now boasts a genuine forward to lead the line, a couple of new fullbacks and several more options in the wide areas.

(as of February 24)

Incoming: Hernan Grana (All Boys/Argentina), Kei Kamara (free transfer), Chris Klute (Colorado Rapids), Cedrick Mabwati (Real Betis/Spain), Mohammed Saeid (Örebro SK/Sweden), Kristinn Steindórsson (Halmstads BK/Sweden), Ben Swanson (Homegrown rule)

Outgoing: Bernardo Anor (Sporting Kansas City), Jairo Arrieta (D.C. United via Orlando City), Eric Gehrig (Chicago Fire via Orlando City), Fifi Baiden (option declined), Ross Friedman (option declined), Daniel Paladini (option declined), Ben Sweat (option declined), Agustin Viana (option declined), Matt Walker (option declined), Matt Wiet (option declined), Josh Williams (New York City FC)

Federico Higuain operates in a free role in central midfield and uses the latitude afforded to pick apart the opposition.

FUNDAMENTALS

Philosophy: Berhalter adopted an expansive, possession-oriented 4-2-3-1 setup last year. This group often prefers to dictate terms on the ball, push the fullbacks into the attack and rely on its excellent midfield trio to establish dominion over the affair.

Strengths: This is a clever, intelligent team with a clear sense of purpose and the ability to implement its directives in possession. The spine of the starting XI — Steve Clark in goal, Michael Parkhurst in central defense, Higuain, Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp in midfield and Kei Kamara up front — offers a firm grounding. There is a wealth of choices in the wide areas with Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram now established as influential figures and Cedrick Mabwati poised to contribute his searing pace to the cause. Waylon Francis and Chris Klute present established options in the fullback areas, too.

Weaknesses: The focus on possession often caused Crew SC to toil at times last year when its work on the ball did not meet the desired standards. There are more alternatives now with Kamara offering a direct element, but those concerns still linger. Emanuel Pogatetz remains a question mark after failing to establish himself in the side after arriving midseason. There are few alternatives to Higuain or Kamara if either player misses substantial time.

KEY QUESTIONS

Former Middlesbrough and Sporting Kansas City forward Kei Kamara supplies a reliable and proven option to lead the line.

* Is Kamara the long-awaited number nine? Kamara swapped the Championship for MLS at the end of last season. He brings an established record in this league and a robust approach well suited to leading the line. He must ally his usually formidable work in the air with the requisite sharpness in front of goal to end the search for a reliable center forward once and for all.

* Will Pogatetz emerge after a peripheral role in 2015? The former Middlesbrough and Nürnberg defender signed with Crew SC in time for the stretch run, but he watched Tyson Wahl partner Parkhurst during crunch time. He will receive every opportunity to provide a more physical element next to the adroit Parkhurst, but he must produce in order to make sure the departures of Eric Gehrig and Josh Williams are not felt too much.

* Can Crew SC devise reliable alternatives? The difference between a good team and a MLS Cup contender is often found in the ability to grind out results at something less than full strength. Columbus struggled in that department last year, but there is reason to hope for better this year with Kamara now up top and a full year of familiarity within this system.

Best-case scenario: Crew SC takes the leap from playoff team to MLS Cup contender. Higuain submits a MLS MVP-caliber season, while Tchani and Trapp continue to dictate games in central midfield. Kamara leads the line admirably. Pogatetz and the rest of the defense establishes the firm foundation. All of those strides leave the Crew playing deep into the postseason.

Worst-case scenario: This year follows Portland’s path of one massive step forward, two small steps back from a year ago. Opposing teams find a way to disrupt the work in possession. Several players slip after submitting career years last season. The expected push toward the top of the Eastern Conference yields to a scrap for one of the final playoff berths instead.

For a lot of guys, it was foreign at the beginning of the season. As it went on, the development and the evolution of our style of play grew significantly. Towards the end of the season, we knew exactly what to do. Still, it wasn’t the polished product we wanted. I think this year, hopefully, it’ll be even better.

Columbus Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp on the club's revamped approach and the strides ahead in 2015.