Ahead of a busy offseason, Crew Technical Director Brian Bliss sits down with TheCrew.com's Cody Sharrett to discuss the 2012 season and the club's focus heading into 2013:
Cody Sharrett: The team finished with 52 points in 2012, the second-highest point total in Crew history, yet it wasn't enough to make the playoffs this season. Looking back on 2012, what were some of the bright spots to you, what went poorly, and how can it be improved?
Brian Bliss: We do a thorough, top-to-bottom review of what we've got. I think the numbers that everybody has been talking about – whether it's websites or newspapers – is the ability to hold on to leads, conceding goals, and our goals-against-average. I think once [Jairo] Arrieta came and [Federico} Higuaín came, we showed we can score goals. We'll have those players back, so that shouldn't be an issue next year. So, we've got to concentrate on how to shore-up things in the backline a little bit more than we thought we would need to. We've got a little bit of resource and a little bit of wiggle room in terms of not making the playoffs and what the league will give us. We've got some ability to make a move there, but it also comes down to how many foreign spots we have available if we're looking outside the League.
CS: You talked about shoring-up the backline. It was depleted at times throughout the year due to injuries to Chad Marshall, Carlos Mendes and Julius James. How can you build depth there ahead of 2013?
BB: I think we've got the abilities with options on some guys. We've got guys that might be tradable. There are other ways to get it done. I wouldn't say the [college Super] draft is going to be a way to bring a guy in that's going to completely overhaul your backline. We've got some areas we can work on to try and change that. Some of it comes down to continuity with the injuries, but when we were springing the leaks, we had pretty much all of our bodies relatively healthy minus one guy maybe. I don't think we can really pin it on injuries.
CS: Josh Williams isn't a natural left back, but he did play pretty well there the second half of the season. Is that position the biggest hole you see in the lineup going into the offseason?
BB: Yeah, I mean I think Nemanja [Vukovic] did well when he was over there for the short amount of time he was there. Josh settled into that spot and did an adequate job. He gave us some really good performances there as well. But at the MLS level, you can do it, but it's not ideal to have a righty playing left back. I can recall just Chris Wingert, a former player here, he's about the only guy I know that's been overly successful and nailed that down playing as a righty playing on the left. I think you've got to have a natural lefty over there, and I think that's a priority.
CS: Once Federico Higuaín came in, he, Eddie Gaven and Justin Meram really worked well in the midfield attack. How do you see those three working together going forward?
BB: I think Federico is a guy who is up in the front line, but can drift back into the midfield and give us that ability to regulate the tempo of the game. Justin came on this year. I wouldn't say he had a breakout year, but I think he showed glimpses of what he can do in terms of shooting ability and getting in front of the box. I think he's starting to take care of the ball better in the midfield third. Eddie had a breakout year in terms of his goal scoring and production. Part of that lies on Eddie and I think part of that lies on the ability to link-up with Federico and Arrieta as well. Eddie's production is tied to that. That's promising coming back, and then looking at Ben Speas and what he did in that final game. I know it's only one game, but he showed it in the Reserve League and he duplicated it in the final game of the season.
CS: At the forward positions, you have one true striker in Jairo Arrieta. You're pretty deep on the wings with players like Meram, Speas, Ethan Finlay or Bernardo Añor when he returns from injury. How can you go about building depth at the forward position this offseason?
BB: It's going to have to be through the draft. Even though I said we'll have some resources given to us by the League, I think we have more of a priority in other areas of the field that are probably going to take up those resources. We're going to have to look internally within the League to make something happen there and the SuperDraft.
CS: The Crew won its second-straight Reserve League title this season. What does that say about the depth you've built with this team and how have you seen those guys improve over the course of the season?
BB: It's two straight years we've won either the League title or the divisional title in the Reserve League. You've got to be doing something right there and there's got to be some good players in the system, otherwise you wouldn't be able to win as many games as we did. I think Justin [Meram] cut his teeth there pretty well over the last two years, Ben [Speas] cut his teeth there this year, Eric Gehrig did for the most part, and Josh Williams has now really made a breakthrough and played 28 or 30 games for us. We hope to have guys like Finlay becoming the next Josh Williams or Ben Speas doing the same thing. The Reserve League has been a good feeder system to our First Team and we hope with the new structure of the Reserve League that guys are getting more games and accelerating their growth.
CS: In MLS, because of salary cap restrictions and roster spots, there is significant turnover in every team each year. Teams change about 30 percent each season. With that, the Crew has been able to remain successful. There's no Expansion Draft this year, where in the past you've lost guys like Alejandro Moreno, Brad Evans and Adam Moffat among others. What are you expecting this offseason?
BB: I think we're looking at that 25, 28, maybe 30 percent turnover as you mentioned. It's just inevitable with the cap. Some of these guys want to move on, some of it's cap related, some of it is that we have to part ways with the guy for whatever reason. I think we've got to be efficient and diligent with the resources we have. That's putting the extra work in on the scouting end with college kids. It's scouring USL for the bargain-priced guy. Also, using international resources to find that one guy that fills an international spot at a value position.
CS: You have a few weeks remaining to notify Academy players whom you would like to sign as Homegrown Players. What is going into evaluating Academy products like Wil Trapp, Chad Barson, Matt Wiet and Justin Luthy?
BB: We've been keeping track of those guys. Other than Trapp, they're all seniors. We've seen them in college for the past three or four years. We know what their capabilities are. I think we're high on most of those guys, it's just a matter of how much room we have to sign one or all of them. If we could, we would sign them all and it'd be pretty easy on us. But I think resource-wise, we're going to be able to [sign] two, and if we're lucky, a third. That's kind of where it's at. From a priority standpoint, those guys in the back are looking pretty good right now because of where we are as a statistical team looking at the past season. Those guys could benefit from that.
CS:Two Homegrown players started in games this season. How does that reflect on the Crew's youth development system and what we're seeing now on the First Team?
BB: I think we're doing the right things. We wish we had more [Homegrown signings] earlier, but we didn’t. That's just the way it is. I think with Matt Lampson and Ben Speas, and now Aaron Horton who is going into his third year, I think they're poised to contribute some more minutes. You start talking about some guys you just mentioned and even going deeper than that with Ben Swanson, Carter Richardson, Parker Siegfried, and George Braima: we've got guys in the pipeline. It shows we're doing things, at least we think on the right level. It's bearing fruit, and when it will really bear fruit is if we can win a championship with some of those guys on the field.