2012 Columbus Crew Preview: Squad coming together

MLSsoccer.com is previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2011 and ending with the league's newest addition, the Montreal Impact. This is part one of two previewing Columbus' 2012 season. You can find Part 2 here.

Setting the Scene

Tabbed for the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2011 after a major overhaul, the Crew (13-13-8) proved critics wrong for three-fourths of the season until limping across the finish line with a 2-6-1 mark to end the season followed by a playoff exit at Colorado.

Inconsistency from the forwards and a lack of any scoring threats coming through the midfield put pressure on the defense to step up – and it didn’t. A main culprit was the instability at the holding midfielder position due to an abundance of injuries. The Crew made no significant upgrades there but hope the return to health of Rich Balchan, Danny O’Rourke and Tony Tchani provides a fix.

The goal of improving the attack was met with the addition of Chilean midfielder Milovan Mirosevic and Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas, who replaces leading scorer Andrés Mendoza (13 goals in 2011). Mirosevic can play behind the forwards, as Guillermo Barros Schelotto did successfully for the Crew for many years, and will provide the type of dead-ball service that Columbus fans have missed since Schelotto’s departure after the 2010 season.

Left back remains a concern with Shaun Francis holding the spot for now while the Crew continue the search for alternatives.

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In and Out

IN: D Carlos Mendes (12/5: Re-Entry Stage 1/New York); G Matt Lampson (12/15: Home Grown); M Milovan Mirosevic (1/4: free/Universidad Católica); F Olman Vargas (1/6: free/Club Herediano); F Ben Speas (1/11: Home Grown); F Ethan Finlay (1/12: SuperDraft); D Aubrey Perry (1/12: SuperDraft); M Kevan George (1/12: SuperDraft): M Kirk Urso (1/17: supplemental draft); D Jamie Finch (1/17: supplemental draft); F Darren Amoo (1/17: supplemental draft); F Andrew Bulls (1/17: supplemental draft)

OUT: D Josh Gardner (11/23: expansion draft); M Santiago Prim (11/23: waived); D Dejan Rusmir (11/23: waived); F Andrés Mendoza (12/6: option declined); M Kevin Burns (12/12: option declined); F Jeff Cunningham (12/12: option declined); M Robbie Rogers (1/11: free/Leeds United); M Emmanuel Ekpo (2/23: free/Molde)

READ: 2012 Columbus Crew Depth Chart


 

Star Attraction: Milovan Mirosevic

The comparisons are inevitable – South American playmaking midfielder with excellent leadership – but the Crew brass doesn’t want to label Mirosevic (pictured right) as the next Schelotto, the Argentine who was named league MVP in 2008 and led Columbus to the MLS Cup.

However, Mirosevic does have a quality that suggests the days of the offense dying in the final third could be over. He has great vision, an accurate shot and the versatility to play as a forward if needed.

As a bonus, defender Chad Marshall will finally have someone who can get the ball to his head from corner kicks.

READ: Countdown to First Kick: 25 Columbus' new hope

Unsung Hero: Eddie Gaven

Coach Robert Warzycha doesn’t think twice about putting Gaven’s name on the lineup card. He knows the indefatigable midfielder can play either side or in the middle if needed.

But a leg injury in early August showed Gaven’s real worth. After winning the first two games in his absence, the Crew went winless in six until he scored the winner in his return against D.C. United on Oct. 2.

Gaven had five goals in 26 games and was among the leaders in fouls suffered until his injury, often taking one for the team to set up a free kick.

Ready for Primetime: Dilly Duka

After the midfielder voiced his displeasure over playing only three matches during his rookie season in 2010, a humbler but no less eager Duka (pictured right) was rewarded for his patience at the end of the 2011 with more minutes, particularly when Robbie Rogers was injured.

Duka scored his first goal in the next to last match at New England and followed with another goal a week later against Chicago. An offseason trip to Europe with the US U-23s and a possible spot on the Olympic team attempting to qualify for London in March should boost Duka’s game to match his bravado.


 

READ: Crew proud to join rich sporting tradition of Barbasol

Storylines to Watch

1. Can Danny O'Rourke stay healthy? Having O’Rourke for just six games last season as he struggled to recover from 2010 knee surgery cost the Crew not only his leadership in the locker room but flexibility on the field. If O’Rourke is at full strength, he’ll battle Tony Tchani at defensive midfield, but he can also provide cover at any of the back-line positions. With the team not convinced Francis can do the job at left back, O’Rourke’s versatility could come into play there as well.

2. How will the club approach the transfer market midseason? Technical director Brian Bliss admits he wishes he would have signed someone during the 2011 summer transfer window to help the team down the stretch. He won’t make the same mistake if the right deal is out there. He is not shy in stating the Crew are looking for another forward and has the resources to afford a Designated Player that could could make an immediate impact.

What He Said

“We saw at the end of the last year that we had the core but obviously we needed something else. That something else is we added Mirosevic and Vargas. Hopefully, we’ll also add a DP that will be something extra.”

– Crew head coach Robert Warzycha

SEE: 2012 Season Preview Archive

If Everything Goes Right

A sense of rejuvenation permeates the organization. There’s a new jersey sponsor (Barbasol), an expansive new TV deal with FOX Sports Ohio and season ticket sales are on the rise.

Now it’s up the players and staff to continue the momentum. If a good crop of young players develop, they might provide the energy to help avoid the late swoons of the past two seasons. Adding a Designated Player – preferably a striker – during the summer would also boost the offense and morale. If that happens, there’s no reason the Crew should finish lower than third in the Eastern Conference.

Craig Merz covers the Columbus Crew for MLSsoccer.com.

WATCH: 2011 Columbus Crew Goals