Goal.com MLS Guidebook: The 2011 Columbus Crew

The newly rebuilt Crew are analyzed.

What went right?
The Columbus Crew advanced to the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League for the second year in a row, finishing second in Group B, one point behind Santos Laguna. Despite giving hearty minutes to reserves in the competition, the Black and Gold conceded just four times in the group stage, tying the best record in the tournament with Group C winner Monterrey. The Crew also made the U.S. Open Cup final, where they were unfortunate to play Seattle Sounders FC on their home turf at Qwest Field, and Seattle prevailed 2-1. In league play, the Crew started off hotter than any team except then the seemingly world-beating LA Galaxy, beginning the 2010 campaign 6-2-3 before the World Cup break.

Another bright spot in for the Black and Gold was the surprising performance of rookie fullback Shaun Francis. The fourth round pick in the SuperDraft, he filled in for Gino Padula when the Argentine went down injured, and Francis never looked back. He did make his share of mistakes, but he improved his play with every game and was rewarded for his performances with a call-up to the Jamaican national team. The future is bright for the pacey fullback. 

What went wrong?

For all the positives that advancement in both the Open Cup and in CCL play, the Crew failed to bring home any silverware in 2010. They lost in the final of the U.S. Open Cup and crashed out in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs to eventual champion Colorado in penalty kicks. The supporters had high expectations with the side almost fully intact from the '08 league double squad. However, due to the club's dreadful form in the months of September and October, winning just twice in two months, the season ended bereft of silverware.

Much of the club's horrendous form can be attributed to the congested schedule in the latter half of the season, with the team playing two games per week for much of it.  However, the coaching staff is not blameless. They knew the schedule, and yet the oldest player on the team led the team in minutes played. Young players and new signings would show brief flashes of their abilities and then make room for the usual 18 on game days. Names like Leandre Griffit and Dilly Duka come to mind, both not finding playing time in Robert Warzycha's system.

Biggest surprises?

When Gino Padula went down with an injury, the Crew turned to rookie 23-year-old Shaun Francis, and he turned out to be a revelation, holding down the left fullback spot for the rest of the season. Francis has pace for days, which masked his expected positional and tactical shortcomings. His is still a raw talent, but if he could improve his consistency, crossing and positioning, he will be a starter for years to come.

Another surprise was the emergence of Emilio Renteria as a goal scoring threat. Joining the club late in 2009, he failed to make any impact in extremely limited action. In a expanded role this season, the diminutive Venezuelan international used his strength and speed to score five goals, good for third most on the roster, and he did it playing only 857 minutes. The 26-year-old notably scored in both games against the New York Red Bulls, and in the season finale against the expansion Philadelphia Union, but on that day his celebration may have been more memorable. Renteria possesses a deceptively powerful shot and the timing of his runs is almost always astute. If he can duplicate his stats in a larger role next year, the league's defenders will dread seeing Renteria on the pitch.

Biggest disappointments? 

There is probably a joke or two about the Crew's inability to put their chances away being shared amongst supporters and rivals alike, and for good reason. One just needs to look at the last match of the season, where the Black and Gold should have had the series in hand 25 minutes into the second leg, but the team forgot its shooting boots, as was the habit for the second half of their season. Chance after chance went go begging, and it seemed that a goal would never come for stretches.

The midfields' lack of production was also a cause for concern, as no midfielder tallied more than Eddie Gaven's three goals. To put the lack of scoring into perspective, goalkeeper William Hesmer scored more league goals than Duncan Oughton, Dilly Duka, Kevin Burns, and Danny O'Rourke combined, and as many as Emmanuel Ekpo, Brian Carroll and Robbie Rogers. The chances were there, but the finishing was dreadful. On a side note, Danny O'Rourke has compiled 11,941 career league minutes, and has of yet failed to score. He has more career red cards (6) than shots on goal (5). Nobody will ever mistake the defensive midfielder/fullback for a striker, but sooner or later he has to score, right?

Biggest need?

Hard work and pressing from your forwards is nice, but when they don't put their chances away, its hard to justify their place on the pitch. Nobody questioned Steven Lenhart or Jason Garey's work ethic; their production was the ability in question. Lenhart is a consistently inconsistent finisher, with 12 goals in all competitions in 2010, but he missed some glorious chances only to bury some very difficult ones. With Lenhart (San Jose Earthquakes), Garey (Houston Dynamo) and Schelotto (Gimnasia La Plata) no longer with the team, someone must step up the scoring. Jeff Cunningham is back with the squad, and will need to maintain his scoring ratio to help solve this issue.

They will do better in 2011 if...

They are able to find a goalscorer and replace Guillermo Barros Schelotto's production. With no more Schelotto to bury seemingly every penalty and assist on every free kick, the Crew must find a new offensive identity. The format will likely shift, with two forwards deployed next to each other, battering at the goal. The team will take a more direct, agricultural approach than the slower, silkier stuff played with Guille at the center.

They will do worse in 2011 if...

Guillermo Barros Schelotto's production can not be replaced. The aging maestro led the team in goals, assists, game winning goals, and minutes. That must all be replaced if the Crew expect to contend. Looking at the current roster, Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers will likely split dead ball and penalty duties. If they can produce as Guille did remains to be seen.

Robert Warzycha has been outspoken in his criticism of the Argentine, claiming he couldn't find the game and that his skill set and perceived lack of defensive work ethic limited tactical options. With the legend no longer at the club, Warzycha has promised a younger, more athletic squad. We will see if he and the FO can deliver.

Player to watch?

U.S. U-23 international Dilly Duka saw limited action in a crowded midfield last season, but with at least two starters and another reserve gone from the central area, the skillful midfielder may have a chance to get a serious look next season. Whether or not he is part of the plan remains to be seen, but Duka should begin to feature more prominently in a younger and more athletic Crew side in 2011. Duka impressed in the most recent Generation adidas trip to Spain, and if he can translate that success on the pitch for his club side, he will be a viable asset for the Crew.

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