The midfield is the transition from defense to the attack. The players in the middle are generally expected to possess the ball and generate offense, while also helping on the defensive side.
Having a strong midfield can be a key ingredient in a successful season because of how frequently they are around the ball.
Because of this, picking the correct formation and personnel is one of the more important decisions a manager can make when selecting his team. This will be up to new Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter, as he looks to build a strong core in the center of the park.
The Crew struggled in 2013 to find a consistent midfield group, which may have played a big role in a second consecutive season without a playoff appearance.
The year began with Eddie Gaven, Augustin Viana, Danny O'Rourke, and Dominic Oduro in the middle of the park and changed on a regular basis. Gaven was lost for the season in late May with a torn ACL and Viana and O'Rourke battled injuries throughout.
By seasons end, Oduro, who also lined up at forward, was the only consistent player from opening day.
Homegrown rookie Wil Trapp took over one of the central spots in July and quickly became a mainstay at the defensive midfield position. Then head coach Robert Warzycha struggled to find someone to pair with Trapp, experimenting with Tony Tchani, Konrad Warzycha, and Bernardo Anor in the center.
Warzycha also had difficulty replacing Gaven on the wing. Anor saw time out wide, along with Ben Speas, Justin Meram, and Ethan Finlay.
What Has Changed
Many of the players from last season remain on the 2014 Crew roster, but the biggest departure is Eddie Gaven. The utility midfielder, who made 198 appearances for the Black and Gold, announced a surprise retirement after 2013 and leaves a big hole.
Columbus added Daniel Paladini, a central midfielder with 66 MLS appearances, most recently with the Chicago Fire, and Hector Jimenez from the L.A. Galaxy.
The Black and Gold signed two rookies in Fifi Baiden and Matt Walker. Baiden is a holding midfielder who was a preseason All-American before an injury plagued senior season at U.C. Santa Barbara. Walker is a homegrown player out of Xavier who scored 26 goals and added 24 assists in 79 games for the Musketeers.
The biggest midfield change may be in coaching philosophy. Warzycha often utilized two central midfielders who sat and distributed from a deep position. Berhlater will likely ask his midfielders be more involved in the attack.
This will affect Federico Higuain, who under Warzycha would often check far back to receive the ball. This often resulted in a fifth player in the midfield and the Crew's Designated Player too far from goal. Higuain should still play in a role behind a striker, but will receive the ball in more advanced positions under Berhalter.
The new coach has stated that he would like to have a set starting four for his midfield, but that there needs to be a few more players who can fill in. As the Crew has seen in the past, quality depth in the middle of the pitch is needed throughout a season.
What To Expect This Season
Columbus' midfield was impressive in the preseason, especially in the 4-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. While this may not translate into the regular season, it does provide confidence to the players for opening day.
Dominic Oduro and Wil Trapp seem to be the only locks in the starting eleven, but Oduro is suspended for the first game against D.C. United. Hector Jimenez started in his place against K.C. and will likely be the replacement.
Bernardo Anor and Tony Tchani were the other members of the midfield in the last tune up game and both may have worked his way into Berhalter's first team. Anor is an attack-minded player and fits the mold of what his coach is expecting and Tchani has shown flashes of being a creative player.
The returning midfield players - including Justin Meram who is now listed strictly as a forward on the Crew's roster - combined for six goals and four assists last season. The expectation should be that these statistics improve in 2014.
There should also be more free-flowing play out of this unit as they look to distribute and turn defense into attack. It would not be surprising for Berhalter to play with his lineup early in the season if the initial group does not produce early on.
Trapp will be expected to improve on a tremendous rookie season as one of the bright up-and-coming U.S. players. Tchani may be the most improved player, as this system may fit his skills more than the previous regime.
This will be a productive group once chemistry is established. The players appear excited about the new style of play and they want to produce for Berhalter.
This is a big chance for Tchani and Oduro to both demonstrate their abilities. Tchani's career has not materialized the way he would have liked after being drafted number two overall in 2010. Oduro is looking to prove he can put together back-to-back successful seasons after 13 goals last year.
Oduro may be the player who stands out with is flashy play now, but there is a chance multiple Crew midfielders will have proven themselves by the season's completion.