2012 was a difficult year for the Columbus Crew. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007 while struggling to overcome the tragic death of a young teammate.
Comings - The Crew brought in reinforcements after clearing out the 2011 roster. Chilean Milovan Mirosevic was the first to join; coming from Universidad Catolica on a free transfer. The team would also add forward Olman Vargas from Costa Rica. The duo were expected to lead the offense after the release of the mercurial Andres Mendoza.
The myriad of offseason drafts would also see the Crew further bolster the roster. Carlos Mendes came to the team in the reentry draft. Rookies Ethan Finlay, Kevan George, and Kirk Urso made the team from the college drafts. Urso would impress so much during the preseason that he would earn a starting spot on opening day.
Nemanja Vukovic was another Eastern European pickup, in the mold of Dejan Rusmir; this time to settle the left back position.
The biggest additions would come during midseason though. Chris Birchall would join the team and add to the midfield depth. The Crew then announced that Jairo Arrieta would be joining the team once the transfer window opened in June.
The final piece would arrive at the end of July. The Crew made a splash, bringing in Federico Higuain as their new Designated Player. Higuain would spark the Crew offense with Arrieta leading the line. The once dormant attack showed signs of life as the duo drug the Black and Gold back into playoff contention.
Goings - Crew fans said goodbye to quite a few players over the course of the season. MLS Cup winning goalkeeper William Hesmer's option was declined after missing the year due to a hip injury and the emergence of Andy Gruenebaum. Stalwart right back Sebastian Miranda's option was declined and he decided to head back home. The surprise of 2011 Julius James was also let go.
Vargas, Vukovic, Mendes, and Birchall lasted one year with the team before getting cut, or in the case of Mendes moving back home. All of these players were expected to fill in the gaps and be the final pieces to a playoff Crew team.
The Low Point - Keeping this focused on the field, the playoff chase ending loss against D.C. United in October ranks as the lowest ebb of an up and down season. The Crew started hopefully as Eddie Gaven and Arrieta had combined to give Columbus a 2-1 lead at the close of the first half.
The team would collapse in the second half. Marcelo Saragosa would tie the score in the 59th minute. With the Crew esentially needing a win, the tieing goal put the Crew out of the playoffs.
Columbus struggled with the urgency to find the go ahead goal, but were still left open at the back as Lewis Neal would poach a stoppage time winner, booting the Crew from the playoffs while confirming that D.C. would be back for the first time since 2007. A difficult result against a hated rival.
The High Point - August was a trying month for the team. The tragic death of Kirk Urso cast a shadow over any game on the field, but a player who had come to the team as this unfolded was about to give Crew faithful something to cheer about.
The Higuain magic was starting to show, but his August 25th game against the New England Revolution would mark his coming out party. Higuain's two thunderbolt free kick goals were magnificent specimens that rivaled the best in the league.
Arrieta's two goals would seal the win as the Crew came back from two Revs equalizers to grab all three points. Columbus was clawing their way back into the playoffs with never say die wins like that against New England. After a month of tragedy; Columbus had something to celebrate.
Milestones - Chad Marshall and Eddie Gaven became the the third and fourth players to make it to the 200 games played level for the Crew. They joined Jeff Cunningham and Mike Clark as the only players to reach that plateau.
Kirk Urso - The 2012 season will always be marked by the untimely passing of Urso. Kirk was a 22 year old rookie from the Chicago suburbs who made a name for himself captaining the 2011 North Carolina Tar Heels to a NCAA National Championship.
The Crew picked him up in the first round of the MLS Supplemental Draft, but he made an instant impact in training camp. Few people worked as hard or intelligently as he strove to make the team.
Urso wouldn't just make the team, he would shoot up the depth chart to be the opening day starter in midfield. He was a rookie starting at one of the hardest spots to play, defensive midfield. Urso would make six appearances until a groin injury sidelined him in May.
Urso wouldn't get the chance to play another game. While out with a teammate, he collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest. He died the early morning of August 5th.
The aftermath for his family, the team, and fans alike was devastating. Urso was a smart young player who had developed many great friendships as he grew up around the game. Every teammate spoke in only the highest regard for him.
The league, Crew and Toronto all agreed to postpone the game the following Saturday after Urso's passing. The team had made a decision to go to Urso's funeral that day regardless if the game was postponed. They travelled, by bus, as a team to the suburbs of Chicago to pay their respects.
The following Wednesday, the Crew returned to the field on an emotional day. The team had a dedication ceremony on the plaza. Every teammate stood in uniform to pay their respects in a moment of silence before the game. The supporters choreographed a fitting tribute with a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace during the 15th minute followed by silence that was only broken by the chanting of Urso's name as countless two-sticks with Urso's number 15 on it.
As the details of his passing came out, the Crew moved to honor the fallen rookie. They set up The Kirk Urso Fund to help with research into heart defects in athletes. The team also reached out the the Urso family to bring them into the Crew family.
The gesture extended to the creation of the Kirk Urso Heart Award, given to the player with the selflessness and tirelessness that Urso himself embodied. Urso was the obvious choice and his father tearfully accepted the award.
2012 certainly didn't go to plan for the Crew. Missing the playoffs is a bitter result given the improvement that the team had on offense as the season progressed. The defensive collapse was the unusual culprit for the late season swoon.
Beyond the field, there won't be anything that eclipses the untimely passing of Kirk Urso. The beloved teammate who seemingly had a long career ahead of him will always be remembered when people look back to the 2012 season. The wins and losses will show up in the team guides, but the spirit of Urso the player and young man goes far beyond that.