For any soccer club, the midfield is the engine of the entire system. Without a strong core midfield, the team will not run properly.
For Columbus Crew SC, a team who prides themselves on a strong possession-based style of play, the midfield is even more important.
Last year, Crew SC was one of the better possession teams in the league because of their strong midfield. The ball went from defense to attack smoothly and when an option wasn't there to go forward, the midfielders held possession until an opportunity opened.
If the Black and Gold want to be as successful as they were a year ago, the team will need another quality yearlong performance from the middle of the park.
The Crew SC midfield was a bit of a work in progress at the beginning of 2014. While Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp and Federico Higuain (who is listed as a midfielder on Crew SC's official roster) were constants in the center of the park, it took time for head coach Gregg Berhalter to find the correct wingers for his side.
The Black and Gold began the season with former LA Galaxy midfielder Hector Jimenez on the right and Bernardo Anor on the left in a 3-0 defeat of D.C. United. After a successful start to the year, things began to go south for Columbus and Berhalter started tinkering with his lineup.
Justin Meram earned his first start of the season in a late-April draw with the New York Red Bulls due to the suspension of Anor. Two weeks later, against the Houston Dynamo, the head coach moved Dominic Oduro out wide in place of Jimenez.
Winger Ethan Finlay began making late cameo appearances early in the season, but it wasn't until a mid-May contest with the Portland Timbers that he scored his first goal and earned a start the next week.
As the season progressed, Meram and Finlay locked down the positions on the outside and the midfield combined to score 40 goals and register 37 assists to help Crew SC make a late push for a third place finish in the Eastern Conference and their first playoff appearance since 2011.
What Has Changed
Last year's opening day starter on the left wing, Anor, was traded to Sporting Kansas City in the offseason. The depth in the center of the park in Daniel Paladini (four league games played, four starts for Crew SC) and Agustin Viana (four games, one goal) were not brought back for 2015.
Berhalter signed central midfielder Mohammed Saeid, who last played for Swedish side Örebro SK, to provide cover in the middle as well as Icelandic winger Kristinn Steindorsson who comes from Halmstads BK, also from Sweden.
This summer, attacking minded midfielder Cedrick Mabwati will join Crew SC. The Democratic Republic of Congo midfielder should be able to play in any of the attacking positions.
Also, Ben Swanson signed a Homegrown contract with Columbus and was added to the roster in January. The 17-year old center midfielder will be given a chance to impress, but may be a candidate for a loan move as he continues to develop.
What to Expect This Season
As long as the midfield is producing like it did last year, fans shouldn't expect too much of a mix up. Berhalter liked what he saw in the final third of last season and hopes for more of the same in 2015.
Opening day will require an alteration, as Meram will miss the first game due to a red card in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New England Revolution. Steindorsson seems the likely replacement based on his use in the preseason, but Berhalter mentioned other options as well.
While he looks for consistency, the head coach would love other players to push their way in and make game day decisions more difficult in the midfield. Saeid impressed in preseason, but it would take a lot to displace Trapp or Tchani in the middle. It is likely he will be used in relief of those two, along with Swanson or Kevan George, to keep them fresh for the end of the year.
Jimenez will have a role to play in the midfield as well, although he could see time at right back. Berhalter has stated he is comfortable using Jimenez in nearly any of the midfield positions.
Ben Speas almost gets lost in the midfield because Higuain occupies his best position and it's rare the maestro comes off the pitch. Both Speas and Berhalter mentioned playing more of a wide position this year in order to get the 24-year old more playing time.
The midfield remained remarkably healthy a year ago, especially during the stretch run. It would be hard to envision that occurring again in 2015 so the depth may be called upon in a bigger way this season.
Berhalter said recently that the team has worked on some new wrinkles and movements and my guess is this has to do with the midfield. I don't think things will change too much from a year ago, but slight variations will keep the opposition on its toes.
Higuain will continue to roam the field, Trapp will hold things together while Tchani disrupts and the wingers should continue to provide scoring chances this year. Meram has stiff completion on the left and will have to really perform to hold onto his spot. When Cedrick arrives in the summer, Finlay better be playing his best, as the African attacker should push for minutes on the flank.
More talent this year should equal production. It may be more spread out than it was in Berhalter's first season in Columbus, but that could lead to a more rejuvenated team come the regular season's end.