It's been 90 days since the Crew ended its 2013 season in a 1-0 loss at home to the New England Revolution.
Those 90 days felt like an eternity for some players as the team reported to Columbus for preseason duty on Friday, eager to get preparations for the 2014 season underway.
"It's been 80 days since we all kind of split up [after post-season training]," defender Josh Williams said. "Not only do I want to get back on the field, I just want to get around the guys again. You miss it once you disperse and everybody goes in their different directions for the offseason."
New Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter is just as antsy to get the preseason going. Berhalter has been busy in the Crew Front Office building the roster and moving his family to Columbus from Stockholm, Sweden since his hiring on November 6.
The new boss is looking forward to running his first training sessions for the Black & Gold at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. starting next week.
"It's exciting, the field is where it all happens," Berhalter said of his eagerness to get back on the sideline. "It's been a lot of planning, a lot of work behind the scenes, but it's good to finally get going. Being on the field, working with the guys in training and seeing the results on the field, I've missed it. It's a great feeling, when the guys can execute the vision you have in mind.
"You want to be outside, smelling the grass. You want to have your feet on the ground, taking in the air. There's nothing better than that."
The trip to Bradenton will allow Berhalter to get his first up-close look at the roster he's spent the last three months building. He will use the next few weeks leading up to the Crew's first regular-season match of 2014 on March 8 at D.C. United to make his final tweaks to the squad.
"It's an evaluation period, these first five weeks," Berhalter explained. "Obviously, I've seen guys on video. Some of the guys I've worked with before, but it will be good to work up close and really see the skill level.
The new leadership also brings new energy for the players. With positions up for grabs during preseason training, the competition should bring out the best in each player.
"You just have to raise your game," Williams said. “There’s only one way of going about it: you have to step up. Competition is good, it's what you need. Everybody right now is competing for a position. There are over 30 guys on the roster, so I expect nothing but fierce competition once we get down to Florida."
Added second-year defender Chad Barson: "Competition is always good. It brings out the best in people and that's what you want. You want to be in a work environment where you're challenged each and every day. Not just defensively, but throughout the whole roster, we have guys that can push the competition. That's going to put the best product out on the field.
"With a new coach, he might know a little bit about you, he's seen you on tape, but watching someone on tape is a lot different than seeing them in person."
The Crew will play first-division Swedish side Malmö FF in its only match in Bradenton before increasing the intensity at the Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando next month. The main goals in Bradenton will be fitness and building chemistry.
"We have a couple objectives in mind [during the Bradenton trip]," Berhalter explained. "One of them is team building, another is fitness and just tactical understanding. I think we can achieve all three in that short period of time."
With at least 12 new faces in preseason camp, it will be on the shoulders of the Crew's veterans to help the newcomers acclimate to the locker room.
"The chemistry is already a little bit there, I can assure that," veteran forward Dominic Oduro stated. "It's just a matter of how consistent we can be and how solid we can progress building the chemistry. This game is all about having chemistry. If I know someone has my back, I don't care what I do on the field. I know whatever I do, he has my back.
"That's something we need to build, going to [Florida] is where it starts."
The Black & Gold depart for Bradenton on Sunday, January 26.