For the Columbus Crew, the 2011 season started and ended with question marks, but the nature of the queries were very different.
After a seismic roster overhaul last winter, many wondered if the Crew could be competitive after the likes of the departed Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Frankie Hejduk led the team to an MLS Cup in 2008 and back-to-back Supporters’ Shields in ’08 and ’09.
Columbus answered the critics by leading the Eastern Conference for two months starting in late July, but a 2-6-1 mark down the stretch – including a 1-0 loss in a Wild Card match at Colorado – has the team searching for answers as to who the real Crew were in 2011.
Best Moment of the Year
The Crew were rapidly sinking by October, with a single point in six games, when midfielder Eddie Gaven returned from an eight-game absence (right leg bone contusion) to score a brilliant diving header in the 60th minute to provide a 2-1 win over D.C. United in Columbus’ home finale, effectively saving their season.
Worst Moment of the Year
It started with a ball on the CenturyLink Field turf on Aug. 27 that skipped past goalkeeper William Hesmer in the fourth minute and ended with a humiliating 6-2 defeat to Seattle, unleashing the 0-5-1 skid.
Forward Emilio Rentería had eight goals in just 18 regular-season games, but none was better than his cracking side-volley off a Gaven service in the 72nd minute at Chicago on Oct. 22.
Hesmer was already leaning to his left in anticipation after New England’s Milton Caraglio drilled a 30-yard strike on Oct. 15 that was deflected halfway to goal by Crew defender Chad Marshall. A diving Hesmer stuck his right foot in the air and caught a piece of the ball to preserve a 1-0 lead.
No one on Columbus’ roster stood head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, Gaven made a strong bid just by the team’s poor play when he was injured. But if anyone deserves extra credit for the Crew’s success in 2011, it’s center back Chad Marshall, who had to break in newcomers at the other three defensive positions as well as assume the captaincy from Hejduk.
Quietly efficient: That describes 31-year-old Chilean right back Sebastián Miranda in his first MLS season. He committed a mere 18 fouls while starting all 35 matches.
1. Get a dynamic playmaker: The lack of a creative and productive center midfielder/withdrawn forward was appalling this past season. Is there a young Schelotto type out there?
2. Add a left back: Josh Gardner did admirably as a converted midfielder, but he was selected by Montreal in last month's Expansion Draft. Meanwhile, Shaun Francis’ second-season development was stymied due to injuries that limited him to six games. The Crew will be looking for a 2008-09 version of Gino Padula to complement Miranda.
3. Better health: The injury bug wasn’t kind to Columbus in 2011. Midfielder Tony Tchani played a single game for the Crew – the season finale – after knee problems plagued him since his July arrival from Toronto FC. Meanwhile, midfielder/defender Danny O’Rourke played just six times after knee surgery in November 2010. Having him and Tchani available fulltime next season would be like adding two potential starters at no cost.