By Ridge Mahoney
If nothing else, the Crew in 2012 proved that getting into the playoffs isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Teams have reached the postseason – and even won MLS Cups -- with sub-.500 records, and last year the Whitecaps snagged a spot at 11-13-8. Not so in the Eastern Conference; Columbus finished 15-12-7 but came up a point short. Midseason arrivals Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain lit up the league and finished as team leaders in goals and assists, which says a lot about what the attack looked like without them.
The shocking death of midfielder Kirk Urso, who will be honored with a memorial match Sunday, rocked the team psychologically and emotionally. Though the players battled through the season heroically, memories of Urso cast a troubling pall over the team for the last three months of the season.
Arrieta tied Eddie Gaven with nine goals, Higuain notched seven assists in just 13 games yet still won Newcomer of the Year honors. In a 4-3 defeat of New England, Higuain scored twice with long-range free kicks, and Arrieta netted the other two goals. Their heroics weren’t quite enough, though they did give fans reason to forgive the signings of Chilean midfielder Milovan Mirosevic and Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas.
Coach Robert Warzycha reacted sharply to his first season sans a playoff spot. Several mainstays were swept out, along with Mirosevic and Vargas, and the Dilly Duka Era ended in Columbus with his trade to Chicago. Keeper Will Hesmer, a member of the 2008 MLS Cup championship team who lost the starting job to Andy Gruenebaum while injured last year and couldn’t get it back, retired after his option was declined.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Warzycha went down the South American checklist during the offseason: Argentine midfielder Matias Sanchez, check; Uruguayan-American defender/midfielder Agustin Viana, check; one-named Brazilian defender Glauber, check. He also added speed up front by trading midfielder Duka to Chicago in exchange for striker Dominic Oduro, and added veteran defender Tyson Wahl after the Rapids declined his option.
Warzycha has aligned his new foreign players along the spine of his team; Glauber is paired with centerback Chad Marshall, and Sanchez and Viana hold central midfield in support of Higuain. Josh Williams has been moved to right back, with Wahl among several candidates to start on the left. In the SuperDraft Warzycha picked forward Ryan Finley and defender Drew Beckie, and though they played well in preseason they don’t project to get many minutes in the short-term.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The roster looks stronger and deeper than last year, with the South American newcomers expected to shore up the middle. Gaven’s knack for attack should be sharper with better teammates and additional time to know them. A strong defensive partner could help Marshall get back to his best; his recovery from concussions has been long and difficult.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? The condition of Marshall is a concern; once among the league’s best, and the Defender of the Year in 2008 and 2009, he should be hitting his peak – he turns 29 in August – and needs a clean bill of health. The Crew needs his leadership and a few more players also need to step up in crunch situations. A season-killing run of four straight road losses ended playoff contention and left Columbus with a mark of 4-9-4 away from home.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Higuain is a threat with a free kick anywhere within 35 yards, and he and Arrieta should be even more productive while supported by the newcomers. Both are possible MVP candidates if they can play over an entire season as they did in the second half of the 2012 campaign. Gaven likes to run at people, has scored 51 regular-season goals, and will celebrate his 11th year as a pro despite being only 26.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC | Montreal
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Vancouver