The offseason has been incredibly kind to the Columbus Crew. In a matter of a few short months the Crew seemed to have solved every possible issue. Jersey sponsor. Check. New TV deal that will expand the Crew brand. Check. Some serious South American talent to help out in the attack. Check. An aggressive marketing plan to increase season ticket sales. Check. A great showing at the MLS SuperDraft. Check.
Let’s only hope the season goes this well. If it does, the Crew will be lifting the MLS Cup this fall and maybe claiming the Open Cup as well. Here are a few critical questions that should help us preview the season for the Black & Gold:
1. Where will the goals come from?
Everybody knows the Crew sent Andres Mendoza packing after just one season. Yes, he led the team in goals, but there seemed to be something missing when it came to team chemistry and connecting with fans.
If Emilio Renteria stays healthy (and that is a big if), he will lead the Crew in goals in 2012. The Venezuelan is a wrecking ball on the pitch, capable of changing any game with his physical play. Newcomers Olman Vargas and Milovan Mirosevic should fill in gaps in the attack. Mirosevic is already showing flashes of brilliance; maybe he is the player that will finally fill the hole left by Guillermo Barros Schelotto over a year ago.
Prediction: The Crew will see a 10-20% increase in goals. The sometimes sluggish attack will be renewed by new acquisitions.
2. Who will play left back?
This is the most popular question of the offseason and one that may still be unanswered. The Crew appeared to have some options thanks to returning players, some rookies, and of course a good share of trialists. A month ago it appeared Lance Laing might make the squad and be a starter for Columbus, but Laing didn’t impress enough to make the squad out of camp and currently is with RSL. Columbus still can claim his rights thanks to the discovery process, but the former Fort Lauderdale Striker certainly doesn’t seem to be the solution at the moment.
Danny O’Rourke has to shake the injury bug and isn’t a natural at the position. The Crew obviously aren’t going to spend big on the position and none of the rookies and trialists seem to be the answer.
Prediction: Most analysts balk at the idea of Shaun Francis starting at left back on March 10 in Colorado, but this is the best option. Francis has speed, can contribute to the attack, and (contrary to public opinion) is not a downgrade from Josh Gardner.
3. Where will the Crew finish in 2012?
The Crew wants to avoid another first round exit in the playoffs. A great offseason gives them a ton of momentum going into the season; it comes down to a matter of consistency. The team hopes to avoid the rollercoaster ride of previous seasons.
Prediction: The Eastern Conference will again be up in the air. The Crew could finish second, but certainly no lower than third.
4. Who will have a breakout season in 2012?
Everyone knows Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall, and Will Hesmer are among the league’s best. But the Crew’s newest star will be Dilly Duka. He is a player that will help fans forget Robbie Rogers, who crossed the pond to sign with Leeds. Duka is a star for the U-23s and will be a game changer in MLS.
Prediction: Duka will lead the team in assists and score a handful of goals in the process.
5. Which rookie will have the biggest impact?
Ben Speas was named Soccer America’s top collegiate player and would have been a top 10 pick in this year’s draft. He is versatile enough to be a force at forward or in the midfield. However, it is Ethan Finlay that may be the biggest contributor. Finlay was the star of the MLS Combine and has already put in a solid preseason. He could be a force on the wings or up front.
Prediction: Finlay will see the most playing time of the rookies and should land a few goals and assists. He should be the #1 sub for the midfield, spelling Gaven, Mirosevic, and Duka when called upon.
We can’t wait for the season to start. We are a few measly weeks away from the first match, which could be the start of something truly special.