One of the biggest differences between the Columbus Crew team of 2013 and last year's version was the statistical production the club received from its midfield. Not including Federico Higuain - who for the purposes of this will be considered a forward - the Crew struggled to produce offensively out of the middle of the field.
Dominic Oduoro, who split time between a wide midfield player and a striker, finished the season as the team's leading goal scorer with 13, but much of that came while he was up top. Other than that, the midfield combination added six goals and nine assists, four of which were from Eddie Gaven in the first 10 games, which was not enough for the Black and Gold.
With the change in head coach to Gregg Berhalter the style of play was altered and the team was going to need more production from somewhere in the midfield.
The season began positively offensively from Columbus' front line, with Higuain and Jairo Arrieta each scoring in a 3-0 win over D.C. United. That following game contained a brace from winger Bernardo Anor in a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union and a late winner from second half substitute Justin Meram to seal a win at the Seattle Sounders in the third game of the season.
As the success of the midfield waned so did the team's success. The Black and Gold struggled to procure wins over an eight game stretch and it coincided with a lack of production by their midfield offensively.
It was no coincidence that the form changed midfielder Ethan Finlay began to earn more playing time and produce. The third-year forward turned winger scored his first career goal in a 3-3 draw on the road with the Portland Timbers before scoring the winning goal in a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire at home the next week.
Finlay's form over the next several weeks helped him to lock down the right midfield position, while Meram began to produce consistently on the opposite wing. After scoring multiple goals from the same spot, assistant coach Josh Wolff called Meram's shot from the top corner of the 18-yard box the meat hook and Meram patented the finish.
As the Crew made their epic run to clinch third place in the Eastern Conference and their first playoff appearance since 2011, the midfield continued to produce. The wingers combined for a total of 27 goals and 20 assists to create offense and spark the hot finish to the campaign.
It was not just the winger combination of Finlay, Meram, Anor, Hector Jimenez, and Ben Speas that generated offense, but the central tandem of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp as well. Trapp finished his second year as a professional with one goal and four assists while Tchani began to finally live up to his draft selection with six assists and some stellar possession play.
Final Grade: A
The only reason this group doesn't receive an A+ is because I never did in high school and am still bitter about it. In all seriousness, this was the best unit on the field for the Black and Gold over the final half of the season. Had they produced as consistently throughout the year, they certainly would have earned top marks.
In total, the midfield scored 29 goals and registered 30 assists, helping the Crew to one of their best offensive years in club history.
With no consistent threat at striker (stay tuned for that grade), the midfield was required to carry the scoring load and they had no issue with that once they got going.
At the end of the season, Berhalter spoke about keeping the core of his team together and the midfield is the literal core of the lineup. Although there have already been multiple changes to the group, expect another solid year from the midfield moving forward.