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Despite finishing nine points ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps in the league standings after the 2012 regular season, the Columbus Crew missed out on a postseason berth due to a curse of geography. With MLS returning to conference seeding for its playoffs, the Crew finished tenth overall but had no shot at the MLS Cup last season.
Robert Warzycha’s team returns in 2013 hungry to prove last year’s postseason miss — Columbus’ first time watching the playoffs from home in five years — was a fluke rather than a sign of the future. The Crew return a strong nucleus that was neither stellar nor inept last season, but that has offered a case of diminishing returns since the team’s 2008 MLS Cup championship.
Can Warzycha — the former Crew midfielder who still retains the club record for assists — return the team to the level of success that it enjoyed when he was assisting Sigi Schmid, the manager he replaced four years ago? With teams like Montreal surging into the 2013 season behind them and the three teams ahead of them as strong as ever, Columbus must come together quickly and play consistently throughout the summer to prevent a repeat of last season’s near-miss.
Feb 23, 2013; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Columbus Crew forward Eddie Gaven (12) passes the ball during the second half of the match against the Montreal Impact at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports
The Crew opened training camp in Bradenton, Florida with consecutive wins over DC United and the Chicago Fire. Sercan Güvenisik, a Turkish forward on trial with the club, scored the only goal in the 1-0 victory over DC and another in Columbus’ 2-1 defeat of the Fire — but he did not latch on to the roster, instead ending up with 2012 Supporters Shield winner San Jose. With Matt Lampson and trialist Daniel Withrow in goal, the Crew dropped their final game at Bradenton 2-0 to the New York Red Bulls.
Heading 115 miles northeast to Orlando, the Crew next took part in the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge. They returned to their winning ways against Toronto FC, Federico Higuain feeding Glauber a superb set-up for the only goal in the match. Rookie forward Ryan Finley had a goal, Ethan Finlay had two and the Crew trounced the Philadelphia Union in their fifth outing of the preseason. Against USL Pro side Orlando City, they survived a tenacious challenge from the lower-division side to prevail 3-2 thanks solely to a controversial award of an 89th-minute penalty kick that was coolly converted by Higuain for the win.
The victory sent Columbus to the championship match of the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge with a perfect record. They faced the Montreal Impact, a team they will battle all season for a playoff berth. The Crew had the better run of possession throughout the match, but it was Impact midfielder Justin Mapp getting the tournament winner as Columbus fell 1-0 in the final. With the defeat in their last match of the preseason, Columbus finished their run-up to the 2013 season with a 5-2-0 record.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
Earning his spot as starting goalkeeper after six up-and-down seasons in Columbus, Andy Gruenebaum played 33 of the team’s 34 games last season and finished the year with a league-high 124 saves. Once former starter William Hesmer went down with an injury, Gruenebaum seized the position as his own. With Hesmer gone and Homegrown player Matt Lampson the only other keeper on the Columbus roster, Gruenebaum should see plenty of minutes again in 2013.
February 16, 2013; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Columbus Crew forward Federico Higuain (33) is defended by Orlando City midfielder James O
Brazilian center-back Glauber joined the Crew from Rapid Bucharest in the Romanian league, and should start alongside ten-year Columbus veteran Chad Marshall, the team’s all-time leader in starts and minutes played. Eric Gehrig and Danny O’Rourke will back up the pair in central defense. The left fullback position will likely be manned by Josh Williams, who earned a starting role for the first time last season. Former Colorado Rapids fullback Tyson Wahl will probably start on the right side of the back line, though rookie Drew Beckie could press for playing time. Bernardo Añor or Agustin Viana are also versatile enough to play on the edges of defense if necessary, and the team also has young Chad Barson and Kyle Hyland in reserve.
The two holding midfielders in Columbus’ 4-2-3-1 scheme will likely be Viana and Argentine defensive mid Matias Sanchez, who signed with the club on Feb. 8. Defender O’Rourke can also play in the holding role, and rising star Tony Tchani could also press the veterans for more playing time as well. Tobago native Kevan George also saw four starts here last year, providing more depth at a key position in the Crew lineup.
The recessed attacker role is Federico Higuain’s to lose. After joining the team midway through the 2012 season, the explosive Argentine hybrid forward had 5 goals and 7 assists in just 11 starts for Columbus to earn the MLS Newcomer of the Year award. He will be flanked on the wings by Eddie Gaven to the left and Dominic Oduro on the right. 2012 SuperDraft pick Ethan Finlay and Homegrown player Wil Trapp could easily slot in for Gaven; Oduro’s backups are third-year player Justin Meram and another Homegrown player, Ben Speas.
While nobody really fits the bill as a suitable replacement for Higuain’s playmaking abilities, the team would also be much less potent without the finishing skills of Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta, another Columbus midseason acquisition in 2012. The two linked up to great effect for the Crew, though there could also be space for 2013 first-round selection Ryan Finley at either central attacking spot. Depth comes from Aaron Horton and Aaron Schoenfeld, as well as the versatility of most of the team’s wingers to also play from the center of the pitch.
Columbus fans are doing their damnedest to see comparisons between this year’s roster and the group that took the 2008 MLS Cup. With a strong attack led by Arrieta and Higuain and an able defense that should prove even better than last season’s inconsistent unit, the Crew have the parts to contend for a return to the postseason in 2013. Consistency will be key as Columbus battles multiple challengers in what should be a tough contest for the 4th and 5th seeds in the East.