2014 MLSsoccer.com preview: Does a new era mean a new direction?
And now for something completely different: Well, not completely different, but I'm morally obligated to reference Monty Python as much as possible. Anyway, Gregg Berhalter's regime is the official break with the old Sigi Schmid/Robert Warzycha/Brian Bliss era that stretched all the way back to 2006. And while the high points were high – the 2008 Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double in particular – there's no doubt that the downward trend of the last five years has taken a toll on the fans.
Odd-year Oduro: Dominic Oduro scored 12 goals in 2011, then five in 2012. In 2013, he scored 13. My initial suggestion is that someone should buy him a 2015 calendar and do everything in their power to convince the fleet-footed Ghanaian that it's time for another double-digit haul.
Restart wariness: Right now it looks like Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo González are going to be starting together in central defense. That's a good thing, because they're both smart, experienced pros who should be expected to compete an an All-Star level. But set pieces are going to be a big, big problem. Neither's dominant in the air, and nobody else in Columbus is, either.
Star Attraction: Federico Higuaín
Higuaín led the league in chances created by a metric ton last year, and it's not just because he took every set piece within 45 yards of goal. He's a pure enganche – a real creator – from the run of play who opens the field, hits the last pass and just makes everyone around him better.
Berhalter's task will be figuring out a way to push more numbers forward than Columbus was routinely able to get under Warzycha. It's not easy, since Pipa doesn't play a ton of defense, which means it's hard to start him in the midfield instead of up top. But the idea of running him behind two forwards instead of just one (usually an isolated and forlorn Jairo Arrieta) has to have a lot of appeal.
- WATCH: Higuaín, Crew dismantle Red Bulls | Anatomy of a Goal
Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1
GK: Steve Clark
RB: Chad Barson
CD: Michael Parkhurst, Giancarlo González
LB: Waylon Francis
DM: Wil Trapp
CM: Agustín Viana
RM: Dominic Oduro
AM: Federico Higuaín
LM: Bernardo Añor
FWD: Jairo Arrieta
Major Acquisition: Michael Parkhurst
Usually, central defenders that lack size make up for it with incredible athleticism. Parkhurst doesn't fit that mold – he's not going to blow anybody away with raw physicality.
Instead, he just outsmarts you. He's basically a Mensa member out there in the middle of the defense, seeing things unfold three seconds before they happen and stepping in to cut out dangerous plays before they're even "plays," let alone "dangerous." Berhalter will be happy to build the defense around those strengths.
He should also help in attack. The Crew was at its best in 2013 when they were able to build from the back. That will happen with more frequency now that Parkhurst will have prime distributive duties.
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What He Said
"I want to see how much better I can get, especially with a new coach. I think he wants to bring some of the things he learned when he played [in Europe] to us as well."
Fantasy Pick: Federico Higuaín ($10.5m / selected by 12.6 percent of teams) – This one's pretty easy. Finished sixth overall in scoring last season and his team didn't even make the playoffs. He takes set pieces, corners, penalty kicks and will likely be among the league leaders again in both successful crosses and key passes. Plus, he already has a few goals in preseason thus far.
Players to watch: Matt Lampson, Wil Trapp, Jairo Arrieta
If Parkhurst and González jell immediately; if Wil Trapp (who I like a whole damn lot) turns into Brian Maisonneuve v2.0; if Arrieta and Oduro play their best; and if Higuaín does Higuaín things, then this is a playoff team. And not just, "Hey, they made the playoffs!" but, "Hey, they made the playoffs and did so with real style and swag. They ping the ball around and force you to confront death by 1,000 paper cuts. Bow down before the Massive Canary."
But even if all of that happens ... man, this team is going to be vulnerable on restarts. There's a good chance that González will be the only starter who's 6-feet or taller, which would be fine in Peru. In MLS, it's hard to imagine teams – especially teams in the ruthlessly direct Eastern Conference – won't take advantage of that on some level.
The solution might be simple: Move Parkhurst to right back and try González and Josh Williams together in the center of defense. That's probably what Jurgen Klinsmann is hoping for, since right back is where Parkhurst rates on the USMNT depth chart. But if Berhalter does that, he loses a lot of distribution and smarts in the middle of the field. It's a tough trade-off.
And that's what it comes down to for the Crew right now: Every choice is a tough one. And it'd better get most of them right.