Surging Crew on the edge of playoff chase
The Columbus Crew's season has not played out according to the plan, and their playoff hopes hang in the balance. They currently sit four points out of the playoffs with 10 games left in the season. The Crew may need to earn points in nearly every contest for the rest of the year and hope that teams ahead of them stumble.
The next two weeks are critical, as Columbus plays three games against Eastern Conference teams on the outside of the playoff picture. Philadelphia, Montreal and New England are three of the weakest teams remaining on the schedule, and they are 'must-win' games if the black and gold want to stay alive in the chase.
The Crew are finishing up a busy part of the schedule and has every reason to be confident. The defense has been stout, and the struggling offense looks to be changing with some recent additions.
Averaging a single goal per game, the Crew brought in reinforcements for the stretch run. Argentine playmaker Federico Higuain is the big-name Designated Player expected to turn things around, while Costa Rican forward Jairo Arrieta joined when the transfer window opened in late June. Both players have had an immediate impact.
Arrieta spearheads the attack as the team's solo forward. He has five goals and two assists in eight games since joining the team. He's harassed opposing defenses and worked hard to get into position to score, and it's paid off.
Meanwhile, Higuain hit the ground running with three goals, two assists and an MLS Player of the Week award in his first three games. Two free kick goals put his skills on display for the rest of the league. He's an energetic player who makes those around him better.
Eddie Gaven still leads the team with 6 goals, and he's picked up two in recent weeks from Higuain passes. Milovan Mirosevic had two assists against New England, his first two of the year. Even Dilly Duka is back to full fitness, playing 90 minutes for the first time this year.
Along the back line, the defense has yet to settle into a set rotation. Injuries have consistently disrupted the Crew's defense more than any opposing offense has this year. Goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum and center back Carlos Mendes are the latest players among the injured.
Gruenebaum's back injury isn't likely to keep him out of the lineup, but Mendes' hamstring injury will have him out for a month. Head Coach Robert Warzycha will have to shuffle the lineup a bit more.
While Gruenebaum is expected back, rookie Matt Lampson showed he was up to the task by closing out the win last week with a couple of late saves. If Gruenebaum's injury sends him to the bench again, the Crew may have to make moves, as depth in goal is a real concern.
Carlos Mendes had started 7 straight games before his injury and had formed a solid partnership with Chad Marshall. Unlike his situation in goal, Warzycha has battle tested options on the bench. Julius James started 31 games last year before offseason surgery and a punctured lung kept him off the field until the end of May.
It's true the Crew are on the outside looking in at the playoffs, but the schedule also favors a run at the final spots. Of the Crew's remaining 10 games, only three are against teams currently in playoff position.
Crew teams have swooned late in the season in recent years, struggling into the playoffs. There is every reason to believe that the 2012 team is going to buck that history with a remade offense and stout defense. If Columbus can surge, the playoffs await. Nearly anything can happen in the second season.