The 2013 season will officially be in the past Saturday as the 2014 campaign will begin for the Columbus Crew. 2013 saw the team miss the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second straight year and they will be looking to improve.
2014 brings a lot of new flavor to the Black and Gold. Owner Anthony Precourt took over late last season and put his stamp on the Crew when he appointed former U.S. National Team defender Gregg Berhalter as head coach and sporting director. This will be the fans first chance to see a Berhalter-coached team in relevant action.
"With a new coach, new owner, it seems like there is a renewed sense of optimism," midfielder Wil Trapp said. Fans are hopeful that this new era can get things back on track.
The preseason was successful for Columbus, going undefeated in the five games played. The highlight was defeating the defending MLS Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City 4-1 to win the Disney Pro Soccer Classic.
When asked about the success, all of the players said the same thing. Preseason results were good and have created confidence but don't necessarily reflect what will happen in that regular season.
The preseason allowed the group of players from the old regime to mesh with the new coaching staff and the newly acquired players.
The Crew didn't make a lot of personnel changes in the offseason but they did reshape the back line. Gone are veterans Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke who anchored the championship winning defense from 2008.
In come U.S. international Michael Parkhurst and Costa Rican internationals Giancarolo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis. Parkhurst provides the team with diversity defensively with his ability to play in the center or on the outside. Gonzalez gives the team height and experience and Francis provides attack from the back.
"It was kind of a seamless transition to be honest," goalkeeper Matt Lampson said of the defense. "Even when Giancarlo came in midway through the preseason, he just fit in so well.
"It's going to be a very solid back line regardless of who we've got back there."
Lampson saw his first time as starter a year ago, but has been in a heated battle this preseason with new signing Steve Clark. Berhalter is yet to name a starting goalkeeper.
The other key players remain the same for Columbus. Despite the talk of adding a proven goal scorer, none came and the Crew begins with Jario Arrieta leading their line again. He will hope to regain his scoring touch from 2012.
Behind Arrieta is Federico Higuain who Berhalter wants to be the focal point of the attack. He will look to get the ball higher up the pitch and it will be up to Trapp and the midfield to get him the ball in good spots.
Dominic Oduro will feature prominently in the Crew's attack this season, but will be suspended for the opener after receiving a red card in the final game of 2013.
The first opponent of the year will be Eastern Conference rival D.C. United. D.C. is coming into this season after the worst year in franchise history and they went into full rebuild mode this offseason.
The big changes early was the defense, which added proven MLS players Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, and Jeff Parke to a unit that gave up 59 goals a season ago.
"This is a team that is trying to rebound from a bad season last year," Berhalter said of United. "They've brought a lot of new faces in, mature players that have been around the league and know what winning is about and it's not going to be easy."
The defense isn't the only area the Black and Red looked to improve this offseason. They signed U.S. National Team forward Eddie Johnson to a Designated Player deal and added MLS veterans Davey Arnaud and Fabian Espindola.
"They've redone a lot of pieces and bringing in Eddie Johnson of course, one of the best goal scorers in MLS," Parkhurst said. "He's always a threat. He's big and he's physical and good in the air so of course he's going to be one of the main guys we'll be looking out for.
"Davey Arnaud makes really good runs. I don't know if he's playing up top or out wide, but I saw him in preseason him get in behind a couple of times. He's a pro, he's a veteran, he's a real good player."
Johnson was limited towards the end of preseason, but is likely to see time against the Black and Gold.
It will be up to Parkhurst and the rest of the defense to slow the new attack in a road venue that has been tough for the Crew in the past. Berhalter does not want opening on the road to be an issue for his team.
"What I want to talk to the guys and I want to create is a team that relishes going on the road," he told reporters this week.
"I think it's great, you can go into an away stadium and have confidence and want to win the game and spoil it for the home fans and that's kind of the attitude we want to have."
Saturday marks the beginning of a new era and the best way to kick that off would be a road win over a rival. If Columbus can get that done, it will extend the excitement for this team for another two weeks before the home opener.