Heading into the 2014 season, Columbus Crew SC were an unknown commodity. New sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter was, well, new and had brought in an almost entirely new staff. Gone were familiar faces such as Chad Marshall, Danny O'Rourke, and Eddie Gaven and new players were acquired to take their places.
Pundits didn't know what to make of the Crew SC change and preseason evaluations of the team's finish in the standings was all over the board.
Then the Black and Gold went out and started the campaign 3-0, the best start in team history. This possession style of play was similar, but different from other teams in the league and the slightly unfamiliar style helped the fast start.
Through the first three games, it appeared that everything was going swimmingly for Columbus.
Fast forward a year and the results are very different. After almost every expert picked the Black and Gold to return to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second year running, but the club is 1-2, 0-2 when playing 90 minutes against a full 11 players.
While the results haven't been there for Crew SC, have the performances actually been better than a year ago?
"The first three games last year were D.C., Philly, and Seattle and this year it was Houston, Toronto, and New York," Berhalter said when asked this question. "It's interesting."
In 2014, Columbus opened on the road against D.C. United and dispatched of the Black and Red with relative ease. Two goals from Federico Higuain and one courtesy of Jairo Arrieta had Crew SC fans excited about the new regime.
"I think last year against D.C., we had a really solid game," Berhalter said. "I would say it was similar to Houston except in Houston we didn't score the goals, so those are pretty similar games."
The Black and Gold opened this season on the road against the Houston Dynamo, falling 1-0. Despite the opposite results, Columbus actually played better statistically in the loss this season than the victory a year ago. To open 2015, Crew SC outshot the Dynamo 18-8, forcing goalkeeper Tyler Deric into some very difficult saves. In the D.C. game, the Black and Gold had just nine shots.
The difference was the finishing of chances to open 2014.
The second game of the seasons was a win both years, but not in quite the same way.
"I think the home opener, I think we played better against Toronto than we did against Philly in terms of the control of the game," Berhalter recounted. "Remember that game got a little hectic, got a little crazy."
While Crew SC defeated the Philadelphia Union in game two of 2014, it wasn't an easy win. Two first half goals from Bernardo Anor gave Columbus the 2-0 lead at halftime, but Philly's press got them back in the game. Although they only scored once in the second half, the Union peppered goalkeeper Steve Clark's goal, firing 19 shots.
The Black and Gold earned their first win of 2015 against Toronto FC, defeating their rivals 2-0 in the second game of the year. It was a dominating performance from Crew SC, who were up a man for the entire second half, with 21 shots and 61 percent of the possession.
The third games of the season were fairly similar in performance, but differed in most other ways.
"The Seattle game, I thought we played really good at times, but we also could have been down 2 or 3-0," Berhalter said.
Crew SC and the Sounders played an open game with chances for both sides. Seattle scored first on an early mistake by the Black and Gold before Columbus equalized in the second half. The game could have been won by either team after the tying goal, but it was a stoppage time Justin Meram strike that stole the win for Crew SC.
Although the Black and Gold created chances against New York, the team could only score one goal. The Red Bulls played a high-press game and made it difficult for Columbus to work the ball around the way they normally do, winning the possession game.
Despite beginning the year 3-0, 2014 featured three halves of quality soccer by Crew SC. So far this year, Columbus has played two good games and played well in parts against New York.
The results haven't been there so far in 2015, but the performances have. The Black and Gold have been unable to start the same lineup over the first three games. In comparison, Berhalter made one change to the starting XI, by choice, over the first three games a year ago.
The schedule has not been helpful either in 2015. The team played on back-to-back weeks to open the campaign, but was off before the disappointing performance against the Red Bulls.
If you asked the team, the coaches and players would tell you these are excuses, but hey are also reasons. It hasn't been the start to the year that many projected, but looking closer, things are better than meets the eye.