Columbus have many questions ahead of 2012 season

COLUMBUS – As the Crew prepare to open preseason training Thursday, there are still roster spots to be filled and questions to be answered:

1.  Can the team avoid the late-season swoon that has plagued them the first three seasons under coach Robert Warzycha?

After a major overhaul following the 2010 season, the Crew surprised many by leading the Eastern Conference in August with an 11-7-7 record after winning four of five. Then came the afternoon of Aug. 27 at Seattle Sounders FC and a 6-2 drubbing. That started a downward spiral that saw the Crew go 2-7-1 the rest of the way, including a 1-0 playoff loss at Colorado to end the season.

In 2010, the Crew stumbled to one win in the final seven regular-season games (1-3-3) before splitting a pair of playoff games against Colorado and exiting in the first round, while the 2009 squad dropped a pair of postseason games to Real Salt Lake to finish a 1-5 slide. In the two former years the Crew wilted under a congested schedule that included CONCACAF Champions League games and, in the case of 2010, a run to the US Open Cup final.

There were no such international fixture problems in 2011, nor will there be this season.

2. Is midfielder Danny O’Rourke healthy?

From all indications, yes. The fiery veteran had knee surgery in November 2010 and struggled to regain fitness and form all last season. He twice attempted to come back and had to back off, resulting in only six games and 471 minutes.

“He’s doing fine,” coach Robert Warzycha said. “He’s looking excellent this year.”

If O’Rourke and Tony Tchani – whose only appearance for the Crew after a July trade with Toronto FC was in the playoffs – are recovered from their knee problems, the team’s defensive midfielder spot just got healthy as well.

“It’s like adding two new players,” technical director Brian Bliss said.

3. Where are the goals?

As enigmatic as now-departed DP forward Andres Mendoza was, he did score 13 times - but even that wasn’t enough to bring him back given all his off the field issues. Robbie Rogers didn’t score much (two goals) but led the team with seven assists, and he has wrapped up his move with Leeds United in England just this week.

The Crew hopes the signings of Chilean midfielder/forward Milovan Mirosevic and Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas signal a rebirth of the attack, but the key is keeping Emilio Renteria healthy (eight goals in 18 games) and getting better production from Tommy Heinemann (three goals) while also getting “bonus” goals from a bevy of youngsters.

4. Is this a breakout year for Dilly Duka?

The midfielder scored his first two career goals in the last two regular season games of 2011 and enters his third year in the league with confidence. He’s shown well in the current U-23 camp and could be the Crew’s replacement for Rogers.

5. Who will be the leaders?

Chad Marshall assumed the captaincy last year from Frankie Hejduk and got more comfortable in the role but expect O’Rourke to be the take-charge guy in the locker room and on the field.