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SIRK’S NOTEBOOK: Playoff-less Recoveries

As we enter the official MLS offseason, it’s that time of year where we reflect and realize that it was this same time of year last year when Columbus hosted MLS Cup. But not this year. Crew SC hasn’t played in more than a month due to missing the playoffs. (Although it seems that the playoff teams didn’t play for a month due to the international break, so I double checked the standings to make sure we don’t have a game coming up.)

Missing the playoffs is never fun, but being a history nerd is. If you’re a nerd. Who loves history. Which I am.

So as we look forward to seeing what Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter has up his sleeve in terms of getting the Black & Gold back to the postseason in 2017, let’s look back at how our previous playoff truants fared in their immediate rebounding efforts. Perhaps they offer some clues as to what’s in store for 2017. Or perhaps not. I am a history nerd, not a psychic nerd.

Before we begin, a few more disclaimers:

* You will read me referring to players who played at least 1,000 minutes. I don’t know if that is the most meaningful benchmark, but it’s a nice round number that means a player made a significant playing time contribution as at least either a part-time starter and/or regular substitute.

* When we get to 2016, I am working solely off of current contract and roster status. Obviously, players could still re-sign, or trades could happen, etc. So rather than deal with all those contingencies or pull speculation out of that special speculation storage facility in the back of my pants, I’m just going with the roster as it currently stands.

* I have no idea if any of this means anything. It’s just fun to go down memory lane and see how previous Black & Gold playoff-missers responded the following year.

* I’m glad my soccer club is much more successful than not. It kept the research manageable. Imagine if I did this for my Cleveland Browns.

So with all that out of the way, here we go!

2000-2001

2000 Points per game (PPG): 1.19

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2001: 13 of 15

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: Eight. (John Wilmar Perez, Dante Washington, Mike Clark, Brian West, Mike Lapper, Jeff Cunningham, Brian McBride, Mike Duhaney)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2001: Five. (Tom Presthus, Brian Maisonneuve, Tenywa Bonseu, John Harkes, Duncan Oughton)

2001 PPG: 1.73 [Made playoffs]

Entering 2000, Crew SC was coming off three straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing to D.C. United each time. Convinced that this would not happen a fourth year in a row, coach Tom Fitzgerald passed out “Destiny 2000” t-shirts in training camp. The good news is that Crew SC did not lose to D.C. United in the playoffs again. The bad news is that they missed them entirely.

Crew SC didn’t panic that offseason, bringing back the bulk of the core for 2001. Key new additions were goalkeeper Tom Presthus and defender Tenywa Bonseu. A mid-season trade brought in former U.S. National Team captain John Harkes, who served as a mentor to rookie midfielder Duncan Oughton. Also, after missing all of 2000 with an ankle injury, Brian Maisonneuve returned to health and had a career year with eight goals and five assists.

After a slow start that cost Fitzgerald his job, the club caught fire under new coach Greg Andrulis and finished 2001 with the second-highest points-per-game mark in Black & Gold history. They got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by San Jose, though. Still, it was a huge rebound from the disappointment of 2000.

2003-2004

2003 PPG: 1.27

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2004: 9 of 14

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: Eight. (Eric Denton, Ross Paule, Jon Busch, Frankie Hejduk, Kyle Martino, Duncan Oughton, Edson Buddle, Jeff Cunningham)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2004: Five. (Robin Fraser, Chad Marshall, Simon Elliott, Chris Wingert, Nelson Akwari)

2004 PPG: 1.63 [Won Supporters’ Shield]

Entering 2003, Columbus was fresh off another Eastern Conference Finals appearance and a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship. They were favorites to go to MLS Cup. Instead, they finished last in the East, although one point out of playoff position, three points out of third, and six points out of second. It wasn’t like the wheels came off, but it was a disappointing season after such high expectations.

Once again, Crew SC brought back much of the core the following year, but this time there were some major moves. Brian McBride left for the Premier League and stalwart Mike Clark was let go. Andrulis completely overhauled the defense, pairing newly-acquired veteran Robin Fraser (who would win Defender of the Year that season) with rookie Chad Marshall (who would go on to win Defender of the Year three times and counting.) Simon Elliott was brought in to play in front of those two guys as the defensive midfielder. The only other new players to crack 1,000 minutes in 2004 were defenders Chris Wingert and Nelson Akwari. With the revamped defense, particularly the center spine of Elliott, Fraser, and Marshall, Columbus suffocated opponents en route to the club’s first Supporters’ Shield. After starting 0-3, they soon proved nearly impossible to beat, losing only twice in their final 27 regular season matches. (12-2-13.) The team scored the same 40 goals as they did the year before, but shaved eights goals against off the previous year, which was the difference between missing the playoffs and winning the Shield. That’s one heck of a turnaround, torturous first round playoff flameout excluded.

2005-2006

2005 PPG: 1.19

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2006: 3 of 14

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: One. (Chad Marshall)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2006: 12. (Eddie Gaven, Richie Kotschau, Ezra Hendrickson, Jose Retiz, Jason Garey, Chris Leitch, Marcos Gonzalez, Brandon Moss, Rusty Pierce, Joseph Ngwenya, Sebastian Rozental, Jacob Thomas)

2006 PPG: 1.03 [Worst record in MLS that year]

2005 once again saw Columbus favored to make an MLS Cup appearance. As you can see, this is usually the kiss of death. Duncan Oughton and Ross Paule missed the entire season with injuries, with the latter suffering a career-ending concussion. The team also got old, fast. Fraser slowed down. Veterans Manny Lagos, Chris Henderson, and Ante Razov were brought aboard to little effect. Andrulis was eventually fired and replaced by Robert Warzycha, who got much better results, but by then the season was long lost.

That offseason, Sigi Schmid was hired as coach and he blew the whole thing to smithereens. Chad Marshall was the one and only player — I repeat, the ONE and ONLY player — to play 1000+ minutes in both 2005 and 2006. (Frankie Hejduk tore his ACL or he would have been the other.) Since 2006 gets its own entry, I will move on. But this is one of the rare instances where missing the playoffs begat a worse season, even if it was by design.

2006-2007

2006 PPG: 1.03

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2007: 9 of 13

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: Five. (Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall, Ezra Hendrickson, Marcos Gonzalez, Rusty Pierce)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2007: Eight. (Danny O’Rourke, Alejandro Moreno, Frankie Hejduk, Ned Grabavoy, William Hesmer, Stefani Miglioranzi, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Duncan Oughton)

2007 PPG: 1.23 [Missed playoffs]

So, um, yeah, that 2006 team was bad. They were picked to be bad and they were bad. You want offensive thrills like Ola Kamara and Justin Meram? The 2006 team didn’t have it. Jason Garey and Joseph Ngwenya led the way with five goals apiece. In 2006, Columbus went through five goalkeepers, one of whom, Dan Popik, had already retired from soccer and was coaching in college when Columbus signed him for a few days so they had a healthy goalkeeper to put on the field for a 5-1 loss at D.C. United. On the bright side, Eddie Gaven joined the team that year, so Sigi’s rebuild got a significant piece.

Heading into 2007, Schmid kept most of the 1000+ minute guys from 2006, but only five of them met the same threshold the following year. There was a huge influx of talent, including the likes of Moreno, Hesmer, O’Rourke, and the incomparable Schelotto. Also, injured heart and soul guys Frankie Hejduk and Duncan Oughton returned to regular duty and also helped put their stamp on the locker room. The team made an improvement from 2006, although it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. But Sigi’s championship stew was percolating nicely. It just wasn’t quite ready yet.

2007-2008

2007 PPG: 1.23

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2008: 10 of 13

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: Seven. (Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall, Danny O’Rourke, Alejandro Moreno, William Hesmer, Frankie Hejduk, Guillermo Barros Schelotto)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2008: Five. (Brian Carroll, Robbie Rogers, Brad Evans, Gino Padula, Andy Iro)

2008 PPG: 1.90 [Won Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup]

As mentioned above, 2007 saw Schmid assembling a championship roster. By the end of that year, seven members of the Massive XI were already in place, even if their late-season run at the playoffs came up short. Heading into 2008, even though most of the experts didn’t even pick Crew SC to make the playoffs, Schmid found the remaining pieces. Youngsters Robbie Rogers and Brad Evans (after fellow youngster Adam Moffat’s injury) would assume more prominent roles in their first extended playing time in Columbus. Brian Carroll was acquired to shore up the midfield. And then Gino Padula took over at left back. That’s all it took. Four new starters, two of whom were promoted from within, helped to turn a non-playoff team into one of only six MLS teams to ever win the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same season. That’s pretty much the ultimate missing-the-playoffs turnaround.

2012-2013

2012 PPG: 1.53

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2013: 8 of 14

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: Seven. (Andy Gruenebaum, Josh Williams, Chad Marshall, Danny O’Rourke, Jairo Arrieta, Tony Tchani, Federico Higuain)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2013: Eight. (Dominic Oduro, Tyson Wahl, Bernardo Anor, Chad Barson, Agustin Viana, Wil Trapp, Matt Lampson, Glauber)

2013 PPG: 1.21 [Missed playoffs]

The 2012 season will always, and rightfully, be overshadowed by the death of rookie midfielder Kirk Urso. The shock isn’t that the team missed the playoffs in 2012, it’s how close they came to rallying their way in despite their enormous grief. After a pair of draws upon returning to play, and fueled by the arrivals of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain, plus the memory of their fallen teammate, the 2012 Crew rattled off one dramatic last-minute win after another, going 7-4-1 down the stretch. In the end, they finished one point shy of the Houston Dynamo for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. At 15-12-7, their 1.53 points per game is the most for any team that has ever missed the playoffs.

In addition to 2006, the 2013 is the only other time a season was worse than the non-playoff season that preceded it. Although seven 1000+ minute guys from 2012 did so in 2013, and despite the additions of the freaky fast Dominic Oduro and the debut of prized academy prospect Wil Trapp, the Black & Gold struggled in 2013 and head coach Robert Warzycha was fired. Interim coach Brian Bliss led the team to 12 points in the final eight matches, but they fell short of the playoffs once again.

2013-2014

2013 PPG: 1.23

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2014: 11 of 15

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: Seven. (Federico Higuain, Josh Williams, Tyson Wahl, Jairo Arrieta, Bernardo Anor, Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani)

New 1000+ minute guys in 2014: Eight. (Steve Clark, Michael Parkhurst, Waylon Francis, Ethan Finlay, Hector Jimenez, Justin Meram, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Eric Gehrig)

2014 PPG: 1.53 [Made playoffs]

After the 2013 season, Columbus hired Gregg Berhalter to be Sporting Director and Head Coach. In his first year at the helm, Berhalter led the Black & Gold back to the playoffs using a mixture of holdovers, new signings, and growth from within. Guys like Federico Higuain, Josh Williams, and Wil Trapp were already regular starters. Big offseason moves included the additions of goalkeeper Steve Clark and defenders Michael Parkhurst, Waylon Francis, and Giancarlo Gonzalez. (The latter would leave for Serie A after the 2014 World Cup.) And most importantly, younger players like Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, and Tony Tchani blossomed into major contributors. Continuity, growth, and helpful additions all came together to put Columbus back in the playoffs. It was also the core that would win the Eastern Conference in 2015.

2016-2017

2016 PPG: 1.06

1000+ minute guys brought back for 2017: 11 of 15 as of this writing. (Justin Meram, Harrison Afful, Wil Trapp, Ethan Finlay, Mohammed Saeid, Ola Kamara, Tony Tchani, Federico Higuain, Hector Jimenez, Waylon Francis, Nicolai Naess)

Guys to play 1000+ minutes both years: TBD

New 1000+ minute guys in 2017: TBD (Although a healthy Gaston Sauro could be a likely candidate from within)

2017 PPG: TBD

The preseason predictions of reaching MLS Cup once again became the kiss of death in a playoff-free season, just like in 2000, 2003, and 2005. Of course, there are some mitigating factors, such as extended injuries to Federico Higauin, Gaston Sauro, and Wil Trapp. But in the end, the team allowed 58 goals (five more than 2015) while also seeing their offensive production drop by eight goals from the previous year. But compared to 2006? This team had a 16-goal scorer in Ola Kamara. The top THREE scorers in 2006 totaled 14 goals. This team had a club MVP season from Justin Meram, whose magical moves netted five goals and 13 assists. Eddie Gaven led that 2006 team with four assists. (Duncan Oughton headlined a six-way tied for second with two.) Crew SC midfielder Ethan Finlay fell off from his Donovan-esque All-Star numbers, but his six goals and nine assists are nothing to sneeze at, and would have led the 2006 team in BOTH categories.

But the 2006 team was supposed to be bad. The 2016 team wasn’t. In a way, that’s good news. Could this be like the 2000 offseason, where the core was kept after a horrific down year and then 2001 yielded 1.73 points per game? Will it be like the 2003 offseason, where one part of the team (the defense in that case) was largely rebuilt and then 2004 yielded a Supporters’ Shield? When Berhalter talks of “four new starters” for 2017, could it be like 2008 when four new starters were exactly what was needed to complete the puzzle?

With eleven 1,000+ minute guys currently coming back, 2017 doesn’t appear to be a major blow-up job that could result in a painful rebuilding season. That being the case, history has shown that there is still ample room for new talent, whether from the inside or outside, that can turn the ship around in a hurry.

MLS has always been an unpredictable league. Four Crew SC seasons started out with predictions of a possible MLS Cup appearance and ended without the playoffs. The Black & Gold did that for the fourth time in 2016. (Apparently it’s just a weird thing we historically do from time to time.) But on the bright side, three of Crew SC’s all-time trophies were won in the season following a playoff miss. Time will tell what Berhalter’s reload will look like for 2017. Our history has shown that good — and sometimes even amazingly Massive — things are possible following a playoff-free campaign.

There’s a lot of work to do before March, but Crewsmas will be here before we know it.

Questions? Comments? Hope this article never needs to be updated again apart from filling in the 2017 data about winning the Treble? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk

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