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)
There is irony in the Columbus Crew scoring 44 goals and allowing the same number because, apart from a stretch in late August, the team was never balanced.
Early in the season, they had an airtight defense that barely conceded a goal per match, yet the lack of offense prevented the Crew from reaching a playoff position.
Once forwards Jairo Arrieta, who debuted in July, and Federico Higuaín, who made his first appearance on Aug. 19, started clicking the team featured one of the most feared attacks in MLS, but the defense sprang a leak and for the first time in team history the Crew did not qualify for the playoffs despite a winning record (15-12-7).
The season was punctuated from the beginning with an inordinate amount of injuries, and two players (goalkeeper William Hesmer and forward Tommy Heinemann) suffered season-ending injuries in March while midfielder Bernardo Añor joined the list in July.
Because of all the injuries, the Crew relied heavily on rookies. One of them, midfielder Kirk Urso from the University of North Carolina, died unexpectedly from a heart defect on Aug. 5 to put a pall over what would turn out to be a season to forget in many regards.
Best Moment of the Year
There was a range of emotions the night of Aug. 15 as the Crew paid tribute to Urso in their first match since his death. The atmosphere in Crew Stadium was somber during the pregame tribute and moving when "Amazing Grace" was played on bagpipes in the 15th minute to represent the fallen player's number.
The team channeled their grief into a 1-1 tie with LA and, more importantly, Higuaín arrived in Columbus from Argentina a few hours before the match following his signing on July 27. Although he didn't play that night, he would soon provide the psychological boost the shaken franchise needed.
Worst Moment of the Year
Obviously, nothing compares to Urso's passing. On the field, though, a 3-2 loss at D.C. United coupled with Houston's win over Philadelphia ended their attempt to push the playoff race to the final weekend and rendered the Crew's last match meaningless.
As was the case in their previous two road games, Columbus went ahead by the 10th minute but failed to garner even a point.
It's rare that a play drawn up in practice goes exactly as planned during a game, but that was the case May 12 when defender Sebastián Miranda provided the winner against FC Dallas in the 72nd minute.
As the Crew's Nemanja Vukovic lined up a corner kick the Dallas defense concentrated on the middle of the box, where Chad Marshall and Josh Williams presented aerial threats.
That allowed Miranda, who had not scored in his previous 42 Crew matches, to drift unmarked just outside the top of the penalty area. He snapped a header that stunned everybody.
Andy Gruenebaum, the goalkeeper Crew fans thought should have been with the MLS All-Stars as they faced Chelsea three days earlier, outdueled the starter in that match – Jimmy Nielsen – on July 28 as Columbus defeated host Sporting Kansas City 2-1.
Gruenebaum made five saves and none were more critical than the back-to-back stops of Teal Bunbury to preserve the lead after breakaway in the 55th minute.
Gruenebaum had appeared in only 26 regular-season matches for the Crew since 2006 but when William Hesmer went down with a season-ending hip injury prior to the start of the season, he responded with a 1.26 goals-against average, eight shutouts and a league-best 124 saves.
His stellar play for the goal-starved team early in the season was the only reason the Crew were in position at the end to challenge for the playoffs.
MLS named Higuaín the league's Newcomer of the Year and no one in Crewville will take exception. The Argentinean had five goals and seven assists in only 13 games and made Columbus dangerous on every free kick within 40 yards.
Plus, he made everyone around him better, including Eddie Gaven, who scored a career-high nine goals.
1. Reinforcements at right back: By not bringing back Miranda, the Crew will have to replace someone who started all but one match the past two seasons. Williams could be a candidate, but he can also play central defense, another spot in need of help.
2. Reinforcements at left back, sound familiar?: The past two seasons have seen Josh Gardner, Shaun Francis, Vukovic, Williams and even converted midfielder Añor try to claim the position. Many of the Crew's late season issues defensively in 2012 could be attributed to a weakened backline, including the left side.
3. Depth up top in case of injury: What if Arrieta or Higuaín are not available? Mr. Everything Eddie Gaven (right) could move from the midfield but other than Justin Meram, entering his third season, there's not much experience on the front line. If 2013 is anything like this season when it comes to injuries, then the Crew will need all the help they can get.