The 2014 season gets underway on Saturday as the Columbus Crew travel to take on D.C. United. Both teams have gone through some rebuild in the offseason and are looking to improve on disappointing finishes last year. Here to help give some insight into the opening game is Ben Bromley, a writer for United's SB Nation's blog Black & Red United.
Questions for B&R United
MR: This is a brand new back line for United. How are these players fitting in together and what is expected of them this season?
B&R: This is a brand new back line but, at least as for as preseason goes, they are infinitely better than last year's version. The defensive part is coming along quickly, with the first choice back four yet to give up a goal while Bill Hamid has been playing. As the season wears one, I expect them and Perry Kitchen to continue to develop their understanding and to at least become an average or above average MLS defense, which would be miles away from last year.
MR: D.C. struggled to score goals a year ago. They have addressed that issue with some big names, like Eddie Johnson. Is there confidence that the new players can get the job done?
B&R: If you had asked me halfway through the preseason, I would have said no. However, for the Carolina Challenge Cup, Ben Olsen switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-3-2, which is the same formation that the team used for the beginning of the 2012 season. And in the Carolina Challenge Cup, D.C. United was able to get its best attacking players on the field while still not giving up defense, and they scored five goals over three games. For a team as horrendous as D.C. United at scoring goals last season, that was a marked improvement, and it should only get better once Chris Pontius is healthy.
MR: After last season, how hot is the seat for Ben Olsen? Is there a chance that he could see the door if the season gets off to a disappointing start?
B&R: It is possible, but I doubt it. I think that the ownership group has faith in Ben Olsen, and will likely give him the whole season to prove himself and his coaching abilities. If there has not been much progress over last season by the end of the year, however, I would expect them to go a different way.
Questions for Massive Report
B&RU: How weird is it to start a season without Chad Marshall? Who is going to take his place in leading the Crew defense?
MR: It is very weird not seeing number 14, Marshall, out on the field. He was a rock for the Crew's defense since he was drafted in 2004. Though he has the reputation for being injury prone (specifically concussions), he only had one season out of 10 where he played fewer than 18 games and played 24 or more in eight years.
As for who will replace him on defense, I think it will be a combination of players. Marshall, despite being a former Crew captain, was never very vocal. He led more by example than anything else and that was part of the reason Federico Higuain, who still struggles with English, was eventually given the armband. I think a player like Parkhurst can fill in to his spot. Both head coach Gregg Berhalter and Pakrhurst himself have said he is someone who likes to lead by example and Parkhurst said he has become a better leader since he was last in MLS. I think Giancarlo Gonzalez, the latest addition from Costa Rica, will replace Marshall as the aerial presence as Parkhurst is not as big as Marshall.
B&RU: How important is Federico Higuain to the Crew's season? If he is injured or playing poorly, who can step up?
MR: Higuain is the Crew's offense at this point. Berhalter has stated he is the focal point of the attack and wants him to get the ball as much as possible in attacking areas. Higauin, who will now wear number 10, needs to create for the Crew's offense to be successful. The Black and Gold haven't had to play without him much, as he's made 42 appearances in a season and a half in Columbus. If he is out there is no replacement. I believe the Crew would have to change formation, playing with two true forwards (likely Dominic Oduro and Jairo Arrieta) and the creativity would be a collective effort.
B&RU: As another team with a new-ish owner, what do the fans think of Anthony Precourt?
MR: I think fans are really happy with Precourt so far. He came in and made changes that most had been asking for and brought in a coach who has been a breath of fresh air. I think he has shown a willingness to spend money when they made an impressive attempt to acquire Michael Bradley. The Crew are a small market team, but they have an owner who wants to be involved in soccer, seems like he values this community (despite living in California), and has been part of this fresh feeling around the team. As long he doesn't move the team out of Columbus, I think fans will be happy to have him for quite a while.