Going into the Columbus Crew's most recent three-game home stretch, their longest of the season, there was a sense of optimism for the Black and Gold.
After playing five of their first seven games on the road, the Crew managed a record of 2-2-3 and were looking to improve on that in the friendly confines of Columbus Crew Stadium.
While there had been good performances - a 3-0 win at Chivas USA and a 2-1 win in an always difficult R.F.K against D.C. United - there were also signs that things were not as green as they seem.
There were the two frustrating home games, a pair of 1-1 draws, the terrible display in Chicago where the team failed to register a shot on goal, and the loss at Vancouver.
Even the wins were slightly tainted in retrospect. Both Chivas and United sit at the bottom of their respective conferences and the game in LA was in front of a nearly empty stadium.
A 3-0 win over that same United team papered over the problem. Finally this team had found a win at home and entertained their faithful but, this was D.C., owner of the league's worst defense.
The next week, the Crew's 12-match unbeaten run at home came to end with a disappointing 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, followed by a humiliating 2-0 defeat to the Colorado Rapids.
While it is still early in 2013, Crewville is not content at the moment.
The problem stems from an inability to score against better opposition. Columbus is tied for third best in terms of goals allowed with 10, but has only scored 12, tenth best league wide.
Last season the Crew were not a prolific scoring team, but were provided a spark with the additions of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain, who quickly became the creative and goal scoring nucleus of the offense.
Arrieta and Higuain are still battling, but the production has not met the expectations. Those who believed the Black and Gold would make a playoff push this season projected Arrieta and Higuain's statistics throughout a full campaign, yet this has not been the case as the two have combined for three goals so far.
Perhaps the league has figured out Arrieta and Higuain, but amajor difference is the offensive inconsistency is the central midfield. Coach Robert Warzycha has elected to play two defensive minded central midfielders much of the season, hoping they would provide the cover behind Higuain.
Number 33 for the Crew is always going to roam from his position. He likes to drop deep in order to gain possession, and looks to attack from there. He has also shown a tendency to shift out wide, looking to find space one-on-one against defenders. Higuain is not going to change his play, nor should he as it has been successful.
The issue then has become there has been little to no creativity coming from the combination of Danny O'Rourke, Agustin Viana, Tony Tchani, and most recently Matías Sánchez. O'Rourke and Viana are both midfield disruptors and are out there to break up the opposition's play. Tchani, while possessing more technical ability is yet to show enough to be relied upon to help create. The jury is still out on Sánchez, having only started one game, but Higuain remained quiet in the Colorado game.
Last year, Columbus relied on Milovan Mirosevic to play this role, yet the Chilean chose to depart in the offseason. With only four goals and two assists, Mirosevic's one MLS season was not a statistically great year, but he was an important cog in the Crew offense.
In the 26 games did played, he was able to generate offense for the Crew as they transitioned from the defensive end. Before Higuain arrived, Mirosevic was the main innovative player, and after the Argentinean signed, Columbus' number 10 got him the ball in dangerous positions.
This season, the Crew has played a lot of long balls, electing to bypass an unproductive midfield and attempt to find their forwards directly or looking for the outside midfielders in space.
While never an attractive brand of soccer, this strategy could only be consistently effective if there were a true target forward up top for Columbus. Arrieta, while able to hold up the ball well, is only 5'-9" and will not be able to win aerial battles against much taller central defenders.
When the Black and Gold do find their wingers with space to cross the ball, they have the same problem as Arrieta tends to be left alone on counters.
A true central midfielder, who can be that link between backline and the offense, is what the Crew are missing. Sánchez was thought to be the replacement for Mirosevic when signed and may end up being that player, but has not shown it yet in limited time.
Someone who has in his few minutes played is Konrad Warzycha. While he may not be ready to be the guy for Columbus, when he has come off the bench he has played some nice balls and looked to keep things simple for the most part. Fellow youngster Wil Trapp has shown great ability at Akron and with the U-20 National Team and would be an option, but has country commitments throughout the summer.
The last two games for Columbus have exposed a weakness that should have been spotted earlier in the season. There has not been enough offensively to keep two defensive midfielders who lack creativity on the field together. The Crew desperately needs someone to step up and take on the attacking role in the central midfield in order to stop this two-game slide and start playing more attractive and productive soccer.