As the year drew to a close this week I thought back to a very eventful year. Before we start looking ahead I thought I'd take one look back to my top 2014 moments.
March 29th - J9 (+4): It is no secret that Columbus struggled against former coach Sigi Schmid and the Seattle Sounders. The Sounders ended the home undefeated streak in 2009, an Open Cup Final loss, and handed out several lopsided losses - including a 4-0 decision at Crew Stadium - that signaled rave green supremacy.
There was hope after two straight wins to open the season that 2014 would be different, but Seattle struck first. This Crew SC team didn't shrink though. They kept playing possession soccer preached by Gregg Berhalter. It would be the penalty and red card that put the Sounders down to 10 men that would tip the balance. Federico Higuain would convert to set the table for Justin Meram.
By the 94th minute, Seattle thought they had survived the onslaught of late Crew SC chances, but it was a late corner kick that would be their undoing. It was a short corner as the home side was in disarray. Meram took the ball towards the top of the 18 yard box and guided a perfect shot into the corner of the Sounders net. It was a bolt out of nowhere and one that would give Columbus a 3-0-0 start to 2014.
April 19th - Trapp Does it all (well all but the finish): Columbus had looked sloppy against D.C. and probably should have been down to 9 men by the time Hector Jimenez scored the game tying goal. Crew SC is furiously trying to tie the game as the 90th minute rolls around and then United get a breakaway attempt. Only one defender is back to help Steve Clark, Wil Trapp has tracked all the way back.
Trapp forces Fabian Espindola to cut back and reinforcements arrive. The danger over now over, Trapp dribbles unopposed to the center line and proceeds to uncork a beautiful diagonal to the foot of Jimenez. Jimenez cuts inside and fires a right footed shot from the elbow of the 18 yard box that settles into the corner of the United goal. Recovery to goal: 13 seconds.
May 24th - Finlay's Arrival: Ethan Finley broke out in 2014 and it had been building through the first half of the year. He was establishing himself as a super sub and his goal the previous week set the table for what he would able to do. Columbus was sputtering after a fast start and desperately needed a win and Finlay was the key.
His 10th minute goal was a culmination of his growth. He made an incisive, well timed, run at his defender to latch on to an excellent Higuain pass. He made a touch around Sean Johnson and finished from a tough angle. All of the tools came together to make Finlay one of the most dangerous attacking players in MLS. He scored 11 goals using his speed, touch, and newfound guile. That goal in his first start of the year was when it all came together.
July 4th - Tchani Steps on It: This one is personal. I have quite a bit of admiration for Tony Tchani's career revival. He struggled to harness his talent and become a quality player. July 4th was another small step towards that.
Colorado had just given up a lead and were pushing back with fierce pressure to score a winner. They had turned over the ball at the top of the Crew SC 18 yard box and Tchani made the recovery. There were three Rapids players around him trying to force a turnover.
Tchani was surrounded deep in the defensive zone and he just steps on the ball and everyone freezes momentarily. Space clears and he dribbles into the mid-third. The pressure was cleared as a result of Tchani's skill and physical presence. Columbus earned a valuable point after a monster game from Tchani to hold the middle.
July 26th - That Free Kick: Columbus had been on the cusp of possibly turning the corner. They defeated a punchless Montreal Impact team at home the previous week, but New England at Foxborough was a far different test. The Revs were freefalling, but a still dangerous team. These two would be scrapping for a playoff berth over the second half of the season and a win for Crew SC would help the cause.
Higuain lined up a free kick from 25 yards out and calmly curled a beautiful, world-class, shot around the wall and into the net. It gave Columbus a 1-0 lead on the road as the visitors would finally start creating some of their own luck. The Revs would tie, but Finlay would score a late winner to give Crew SC their second straight win.
August 23rd - Gonzalez's brief stay: The mystery was gone once Crew SC called a press conference before the team's game against Houston. The team officially announced they would sell Giancarlo Gonzalez. It was a decision that had an impact on the rest of the 2014 season and shapes the direction of the team for years to come.
Gonzalez lasted only six months in town. He signed on a transfer from Vålerenga in February and left for Palermo by August. It wasn't the usual reasons such as not settling in a new city or having a problem with the coach. Gonzalez played his way to a bigger payday.
Gonzalez had struggled with Vålerenga. He was talented, but didn't always get the playing time he wanted, he got that playing time in Columbus. He rounded into form just in time to help lead Costa Rica to a surprise quarterfinal bid. Several pundits named him to their World Cup best XI squad. The big teams came looking and suddenly a player Crew SC paid a$500,000 fee for in February was now valued in the millions.
Palermo's winning bid was reportedly $5,000,000, a tenfold increase in six months. Gonzalez's on field impact was limited, but the symbolic and practical impact of his departure was immense. Crew SC received a windfall of funds to improve the team. Some of the money could be plowed back into player acquisitions and the rest could build up a support staff. Steve Tashjian's return was directly linked to the funds received in the Gonzalez transfer.
There were tangible benefits in recruitment. Gonzalez is a prime example that Columbus can be a stop on a player's development path. Careers can be boosted by playing for Crew SC and Gregg Berhalter. Veterans have a chance to make an impact and young players can get better. The money didn't hurt either.
October 8th - A New Crew (SC): Anthony Precourt had been shaking up the organization since becoming investor/operator of the team in 2013 and a rebrand was at the top of his list. The team examined everything that worked and didn't work about the identity. The old badge, with extensive history, one of the last originals, would be gone. The colors that identified the Crew in a very busy sports landscape would stay. The team would make the momentous decision to keep the design in house. The team leadership and key personnel would be charged with overhauling what it meant to be the Columbus Crew. All that work came to fruition during the team's big rebrand unveiling party.
With a massive buildup, the team could have over-promised and under-delivered, but they didn't. As the unveiling video built the tension among the thousand plus diehards in the audience, the team, front office, and even the mayor stood on stage. The new badge was met with rapturous applause.
The new badge was classic, but modern. It was nearly universally praised as one of the best logos in all of MLS and it's a clear upgrade over the old Crew logo. The team also tweaked the name, adding SC. The name may be a bit superfluous, but the badge will stand the test of time.
October 11th - 3 in 5: There were many fine moments throughout the year, but the five minutes in Philadelphia defined a team. Crew SC struggled in the first half, but held the home team to a 0-0 tie into halftime. The luck wouldn't hold and they were down 2-0 in the 75th minute on the road against the Union with playoffs on the line. A loss would have left Columbus clinging to the last playoff spot, two points up on the Union with two tough games left.
First Ethan Finlay scored in the 78th minute to cut the Union lead to 2-1. Justin Meram followed a minute later with an equalizer. Coming back from 2-0 was improbable, but a late winner was nearly impossible. Jairo Arrieta achieved the impossible, scoring in the 82nd minute. Just five minutes after it began, the comback was complete.
Columbus would establish a six point cushion over Toronto FC. It all but assured that the team would be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011. It was a culmination of Berhalter's reworking of a moribund Crew SC team. They'd close out with wins at New York and against the Union to surge into third. New England would boot them out of the playoffs, but those final weeks of the regular season gave Crew SC fans hard earned optimism.
The past year was a good one for Crew SC and the fans. The only way 2015 can really top 2014 is by adding some silverware.