The 2014 season was full of changes and surprises for the Columbus Crew. Not much was expected from the Black and Gold heading into the campaign, yet it ended with the first playoff appearance for the team in three years.
Now that it has concluded, we can take a look back at five things we learned from 2014.
Gregg Berhalter Knows How to Coach
When the new Crew head coach was appointed, some people questioned the decision. It was the first major hire under new owner Anthony Precourt and many Black and Gold fans were surprised with the decision to go with Berhalter over other rumored candidates.
Berhalter brought a new possession-based system to the Crew, looking to capitalize on some of the talent left behind by the previous regime, while filling holes as well. The team got off to the best start in club history, beginning 3-0 but went into a midseason slump over the summer months. Throughout the struggles, Berhalter preached stay the course and the team did just that. As the season progressed and the players adapted to the new style of play Columbus was one of the hottest teams in MLS to conclude the season.
Although the Black and Gold bombed out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Berhalter demonstrated he could press the right buttons to get his team going. As he heads into his second year, Crew fans can rest assured their team is in good hands going forward.
Forwards Aren't Needed to Score Goals
The Crew struggled early in the year to find the back of the net consistently and the blame was placed on the lack of a capable forward. Jairo Arrieta had the first crack, scoring in the opening game, but he was still unable to find the form that had Columbus fans excited after his arrival in 2012. Dominic Oduro was given a shot up top, but never really fit Berhalter's system as a forward or a midfielder and was eventually traded to Toronto FC.
At one point in the season, Berhalter elected to go with no forward, playing the false nine strategy recently made famous by the Spanish national team. As the season progressed and the team became comfortable with their system, goals began to come, but they weren't from those up top. Instead it was the outside midfielders, who don't play very wide, who began to unleash on the opposing goal.
Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram blossomed in these roles, locking down the positions and combining for 19 goals and 11 assists on the year. Others contributed as well, as three of the Crew's top five goal scorers played primarily as the outside midfielders.
By the year's end, the wide players totaled 27 goals and 20 assists. The production didn't come from the front men - a combined 10 goals and two assists on the season - but it didn't matter as Columbus scored 52 goals, their most since 1998.
A scary thought if you're a Crew opponent is the addition of Kei Kamara for 2015.
Steve Clark Can Be One of the Best in MLS
The Crew's goalkeeper came in as a relative unknown at the beginning of the year after his time in Norway. Berhalter elected to get rid of Andy Gruenebaum and Clark was the replacement he picked.
It was apparent rather quickly that Clark could be a solid ‘keeper in MLS, but as the season wore on, he became one of the best in the league.
Clark played every game in the regular season for Columbus and was tied for second in the league in saves and tied for fourth with eight shutouts. He was also in the top 10 in goals against average, playing on a team that encourages offense and allows chances on the defensive end. Numerous times throughout the year, Clark came up with the big save that kept the Black and Gold in a match or helped to preserve a result.
In only his first year back in the United States, the Michigan native is being discussed as a potential candidate for the national team.
Trust the Head Coach on Tony Tchani
For much of the season, especially during the summer when the club was struggling, fans of the Black and Gold didn't understand why Berhalter continued to play Tchani in central midfield with Wil Trapp. Tchani has never been a flashy player and didn't start this year, but as the season progressed and he began to understand his roll under Berhalter, Tchani was arguably the team's most valuable player.
In the second half of the season Tchani's game changed. He really began to connect with teammates and play a physical game. The best example was the end of the season in the meetings with the New England Revolution, where Tchani helped to slow down a very talented Revs midfield.
Although he wasn't the same in the playoffs, making only his second and third post season appearances, Tchani finally began to demonstrate the potential that made him the second overall pick in 2010. He also developed a very nice chemistry with Trapp, which is essential in the center of the park for the Crew.
Michael Parkhurst Was the Perfect Fit for the Back Line
In mid-December Berhalter elected to trade the longest tenured Crew player, defender Chad Marshall, to the Seattle Sounders. At the time it looked like getting rid of a veteran with plans for the future, but a month later the Black and Gold acquired the rights to the returning Michael Parkhurst.
At the time, it appeared to be a wash between the two defenders, but it proved to be a vital move for Columbus.
Berhalter was well aware of the style he wanted to play and did not believe the traditional center back in Marshall, despite his defensive prowess, fit into that scheme. Parkhurst is a smaller defender with experience playing on the outside at the highest level. He allowed the Crew to get their outside backs forward and move their center backs wide as Trapp dropped into the middle, essentially switching to a three-man defense at points in games. Marshall would have limited what the defense could do, while Parkhurst expanding Berhalter's options.
Not only did the American international fit into the system, but he also showed what MLS fans remembered of him from his days in New England. Parkhurst does not have the size or pace of a typical central defender, but he is rarely out of position, stopping attackers from get the ball where they want it. He was named Columbus' captain before the season began and led the team as expected throughout the campaign.
Looking back, the departure of Marshall and the addition of Parkhurst may have been the two biggest moves of the season for the Crew.
Bonus: The Crew are in a Good Spot Moving Forward
There is a lot of excitement surrounding this team's future. Not only have they rebranded with a new name and new logo, but the team is finally playing good, attractive soccer. The team has a young head coach and young core that is looking to stay together in the future.
Berhalter has already made multiple additions with the future in mind. Along with the signing of Karmara, the Black and Gold signed central midfielder Mohammed Saeid and homegrown midfielder Ben Swanson. None of those three players were able to contribute in 2014, but the staff is excited for what they bring in the coming season. Both Kamara and Swanson spent the final portion of the season training with the club, so they will have a leg up on other new additions heading into next year.
The Crew made the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and although they did not look good against the Revolution, they gained valuable experience that could help them for next season and beyond.
The future is bright for professional soccer in Columbus.