Opta Spotlight: 2013 will be Year of Higuain in Columbus

Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.

2012 record: 15-12-7 (52 points); 44 GF / 44 GA (0 GD)

2012 Columbus Crew statistics

2012 in Review: Columbus Crew

Q&A with Crew head coach Robert Warzycha

Armchair Analyst: Rebuilding still underway in Columbus


2012 Columbus Crew Average Position

Take a look at this positional chart, then reconcile with the fact that it tells us very little about the way Columbus will play in 2013.

Neither Jairo Arrieta nor Federico Higuaín appear here – they just didn't log enough time after arriving midseason – and Sebastián Miranda, Nemanja Vukovic and Chris Birchall are all gone.

Expect the formation come 2013 to revolve around Higuaín, the little Argentine isn't going to have many defensive responsibilities after all, with Eddie Gaven moving toward the flank and Milovan Mirosevic settling into a pivot role deeper in midfield.

2012 Columbus Crew Passing Matrix (Download HERE)

Here's a minor surprise: Josh Williams took over as the Crew's primary disributor out of the back in 2012. Yes, Chad Marshall was injured for stretches, but Williams made just three more starts and completed 229 more passes than his frequent partner in the back.

Most importantly, the first-year starter connected with Gaven, Mirosevic, Arrieta and Higuaín at a much higher frequency than Marshall. That's an encouraging sign for Columbus, although we must temper our enthusiasm with the knowledge that he didn't always play center back.

Also encouraging? Higuaín's instant impact despite playing barely more than 1,000 minutes. He led the Crew in successful crosses with 28, and completed 421 passes in limited time, striking up partnerships with Arrieta and Gaven from the very start.

1) 2013 will be the year of Higuaín in Columbus

You heard it here first: If he stays healthy, Higuaín will lead MLS in chances created in 2013. That's how impressive the little magician was in 11 starts for the Crew.

As the Armchair Analyst pointed out, the Argentine was third in MLS in chances created from open play per 90 minutes in 2012. And that was without a preseason to learn his new teammates' tendencies.

Even though he played in just a third of Columbus' games, he was second on the club in chances created (41), only six behind Gaven. Graham Zusi led the league in that category with 99. Expect Higuaín to breeze past that number over a full season.

2) The Crew must be more clinical in front of net

We'll start with big chances, since those are ones that should find their way into the back of the net. The Crew tied for the MLS lead big chances "fluffed," Opta's terminology for instances when a player couldn't get a shot off for one reason or another, with six wasted opportunities.

They were also below league average in every other category, and much of that had to do with poor showings from their strikers – notably Arrieta (27.3 percent conversion) and Emilio Rentería (25 percent conversion). For context, the MLS average conversion rate was 44.3 percent.

The good news? Higuaín was two-for-two, and Gaven finished 50 percent of his big chances. Fortunately, they'll have plenty more opportunities to improve in 2013.

3) With Marshall and Williams, Columbus are set in the middle

Marshall must stay healthy, no guarantee to be sure, but this has the potential to be one of the Eastern Conference's better pairings if Warzycha sticks with the youngster at center back.

We already detailed the separation of duties when it comes to disribution, but based on the numbers it's clear Williams would rely on Marshall to be the primary ball winner. Despite playing almost 300 fewer minutes, Marshall held a wide lead in CBI (clearances, block and interceptions) with 337 to Williams' 256.

The veteran didn't attempt as many tackles as his young partner (34 vs. 58), but that's probably because of his ability to read the game. With Marshall providing guidance and Williams the link to the midfield, Columbus should be in good hands.

Now, who plays wide? That's the more pressing question this offseason.

Random nugget: After scoring nine goals via PK in 2011, the Crew scored just two in 2012.