Season Preview: Columbus Crew / by Andrew Olsen

There have been ups, and there have been downs for the Crew over the last four seasons, perhaps even more so than with other teams. Since winning MLS Cup in 2008 the departure of coach Sigi Schmid, the club made Robert Warzycha head coach. But then a steady fall ensued that has seen the club completely miss out on the playoffs each of the last two seasons. This led to the dismissal of long-time fixture Warzycha, who had been a part of the club since it's inception in 1996.  Add this to the Hunt family finally selling off its ownership of the club, and you have a full docket of changes that have occurred around Crew Stadium. Unfortunately for Columbus, none these are indicators that the club will improve, at least in the short term. 2013 Finish: 41 Points, 8th in the Eastern Conference, Missed MLS Playoffs

ColumbusLineup

Player Added
Position From Player Lost Position To
Steve Clark GK traded from Seattle (Hønefoss BK) Andy Gruenebaum GK Traded to Kansas City
Brad Stuver GK
Unattached
Chad Marshall D Traded to Seattle
Ben Sweat D USF (SuperDraft) Drew Beckie D Option Declined
Giancarlo Gonzalez D Free (Valerenga) Gláuber D Option Declined
Michael Parkhurst D Free (FC Augsburg) Kyle Hyland D Option Declined
Ross Friedman D HPG Danny O’Rourke D Option Declined
Waylon Francis D
Free (Herediano)
Eddie Gaven M Retired
Matt Wiet D HGP Matías Sánchez M Waived
Kingsley Baiden M SuperDraft (Cal-Santa Barbara) Konrad Warzcha M Option Declined
Daniel Paladini M traded from Chicago Fire Aaron Horton F Waived
Hector Jimenez M traded from LA Galaxy
Matt Walker M HGP

Roster Churn: 72.03% returning minutes (7th lowest in MLS)

roster-crewThe Crew didn't exactly stand still this off-season. Columbus found new homes elsewhere for both Chad Marshall and Glauber, courtesy of new head coach Gregg Berhalter's tactics and spending style, which in turn opened up salary cap space.  With those maneuvers, it created a void that was filled by returning US National Team figure Michael Parkhurst, followed up this week with the addition of Giancarlo Gonzalez---obviously placing an emphasis on the rebuilding of the backline to a point of strength. Taking Ben Sweat during the SuperDraft added to that growing defensive depth, and he may even end up the starter by the beginning of the season, depending how the position shakes out with Tyson Wahl. These changes make up much of the 72-percent roster turnover.

There is a gaping hole in the midfield due to the stunning retirement of Eddie Gaven. The acquisition of Hector Jimenez helps to mitigate some of that loss, and there is a reason to believe that youngster Will Trapp is ready to take that next step forward. However, Gaven has been an integral, if not an altogether vital, piece of the midfield---for more than just his leadership. His departure stings and will reverberate throughout the season.

The forward tandem of Federico Higuaín and Jairo Arrieta remains intact, and CLBINFOdespite a rough season, Arrieta should look forward to some positive regression to the mean. 2013 was a season where he took more shots (64 vs. 41 attempts) in more playing time (1862 vs. 1534 minutes) than in 2012, yet he scored six fewer goals with at finishing rate of just 4.7 percent. That finishing rate is likely to rebound toward the league-average rate of 10 percent. This is somewhat the opposite outcome from we saw with Dominic Oduro, who "regained his form" in 2013 after a down year in Chicago.

What Crew fans saw from Oduro in 2013 is what they hope to see from Arrieta in 2014. Oduro had more playing time, more shots taken with more of them hitting the target, and he saw his finishing rate jump to 14.1 percent. All he is doing is proving himself with the ball at his feet, and creating shots and scoring opportunities. As we're learning more and more, it's less about the supposed skill of the shooter and more that he's taking high-percentage shots. Couple quality and volume, and it leads to more goals.

Looking to the 2014 season there are a couple of different ways that you can look at this club and judge how their season might end up.

First, it's a club that has had its issues with allowing high-percentage shots. They've added to their defense and seemingly upgraded their keeper, adding American abroad Steve Clarke and making him their conceivable number one. Though I'm not sure that it will change the amount of goals they're going to give up, given that Andy Gruenebaum rated quite highly himself in our Goalkeeper ratings 1.0. With a modified backline and a new set of tactics, you never know how the change of approach might reduce opponents' possessions in advantageous locations, but it's an uphill battle for the Crew.

Yet, despite the defensive leaks, they still took more shots in 2013 than they allowed, and their expected goal differential was actually better than that of New England and Montreal, two playoff teams. Should they continue that trend of producing more shots than their opponents, there does still remain a possibility that they score more goals than they allow. Despite posting a -4 goal differential this past year, there is a chance that going forward their luck improves, and they ride a high PDO to some extra goals in opportune moments.

Columbus, like the rest of the league, has talent. They have some perennially underappreciated talents. Federico Higuaín is consistently an MVP candidate, and while I haven't taken much time to talk about him, he's easily the best player on the club and possibly in the league. The shocking thing is, and I often forget this, he's only 29. The biggest thing surrounding the Crew with Higuian is whether or not they can keep him. There was talk that a club in Liga MX was gearing up to make a move for him.

The best-case scenario for Columbus in 2014 is that it finds a way to get into a #4 or #5-seed position. It would play out something like this: the Crew gets lucky with limiting opportunities, and then on the other side of the pitch they strike it rich on goal-scoring chances. However, the possibility of the Crew reaching those heights at this point seems a rather lofty aspiration at this stage. Too many balls would have to bounce their way, and it leads most fans to believe that this will likely be another season that teeters on the wrong side of the playoffs.

The worst-case scenario, and the one that I find to be the most likely, is that the Crew end up the anchor of the standings, sitting near the token Toronto FC position and fighting for respectability through the season. I remain on the fence that both conferences are going to have an incredibly high amount of parity. On the right side of the country, the Crew could pull out a season much in the vein of the past two years where they continue to press for a playoff position, falling short about two or three weeks prior to season's completion. Or they could just be a club that gets bossed around, taking bad shots, limiting their true goal scoring opportunities, and surrendering too many goals.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 10th place in Eastern Conference; 102 of the 404 10th-place votes (25.25%).

*ExpGD is the same as our metric xGD.

Thanks to reddit user xynto for pointing out we had initially given given Warzycha credit for the Crew's MLS Cup, when it actually came in 2008 under Schmidt.