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Columbus Crew 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

Eduardo MendezCorrespondent IIFebruary 20, 2014

Columbus Crew 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

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    Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

    The Columbus Crew are entering a new era, but what additional storylines will complete your 2014 season preview?

    In part four of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the Black and Gold this season. The number and player to watch, as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar, will be delved into with great detail.

    Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.

Offseason Transactions

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    Costa Rican Waylon Francis was one of the many acquisitions the Crew made in the offseason.
    Costa Rican Waylon Francis was one of the many acquisitions the Crew made in the offseason.Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS's complete list of the offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.

     

    Players in

    GKBrad StuverWaiver Draft
    DWaylon FrancisDiscovery
    DMatt WietHomegorwn
    MDaniel PaladiniTrade from Chicago
    GKSteve ClarkTrade from Seattle
    DRoss FriedmanHomegrown
    MMatt WalkerHomegrown
    DMichael ParkhurstRights Acquired from New England
    MHector JimenezTrade from Los Angeles Galaxy
    DBen SwearMLS SuperDraft
    MKingsley BaidenMLS SuperDraft
    DGiancarlo GonzalezDiscovery

     

    Players out

    MEddie GavenRetired
    MMatias SanchezWaived
    FAaron HortonWaived
    DDrew BeckieOption Declined
    DGlauberOption Declined
    DKyle HylandOption Declined
    DDanny O'RourkeOption Declined
    MKonrad WarzychaOption Declined
    DChad MarshallTraded to Seattle
    GKAndy GruenebaumTraded to Kansas City

The Story to Watch: The Gregg Berhatler Era

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    Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

    Commence the Gregg Berhalter era in Columbus.

    The former U.S. men's national team defender was announced as the seventh head coach in club history last November. After spending the last two years overseas, Berhalter returns to the league he called home during the twilight years of his career. His enrollment in the MLS coaching ranks, however, is not the first time he's held the reins at a professional level.

    After retiring as a player in 2011, Berhalter was named head coach of Swedish club Hammarby IF. His appointment was a historic one. The New Jersey native became the first American to ever manage a professional football club in Europe.

    He was fired after 19 months due to lack of productive play from the offensive side.

    Ironically enough, that's exactly what Berhalter expressed he'd like to bring to Columbus in his introductory press conference last year:

    My ideas about soccer are attacking minded views, that [involve] a dynamic team that can get forward very quickly - that can move the ball quickly. I believe in a possession-based game and I would say that the defensive side of it has to do with organization. I want to organize defensively. I wouldn't necessarily make that link though to the team being defensive minded. My ideas about soccer are very offensive and I want the team to play nice and attack the football.

    But all coaches say that on day one.

    What all coaches don't say—or at least aren't supposed to say, according to Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson—are the reasons one decides to turn down a proposed transaction.

    That's exactly what Berhalter did when he publicly expressed why the Crew opted not to accept a loan for Toronto FC midfielder Matias Laba. That's exactly what Paulson took issue with on his Twitter account.

    Well, indirectly: "If coach thumps his chest to media about specific trades he has rejected, he ain't getting more trade offers. Amazing that happens."

    Rule of thumb: Don't subtweet

    A ball hasn't even been rolled yet and Berhatler is already ruffling a few feathers. These aren't exactly the type of headlines a blue-collared club like the Columbus Crew typically garnish. 

    So, yes, commence said era.

The Number to Watch: 0

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    Zero. As in zero goals. Zero assists.

    That was the statistical contribution of Columbus' left-backs from open play last season. Tyson Wahl's only assist came on a free-kick in Week 4. Agustin Viana didn't contribute at all in his 20 appearances. Clearly, this was an issue that needed rectifying entering 2014.

    Enter Waylon Francis.

    The Costa Rican full-back joined the Crew's roster in late November after a series of impressive displays in the CONCACAF Champions League. In two matches against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Francis completed 92 passes, intercepted seven and added an assist in C.S. Herediano's only goal of the quarterfinals.

    His technique, speed and ability to switch the play serve as his strong suits.

    Just watch the video above for proof.

    In his last two campaigns in Costa Rica, Francis started in 39 matches and was a key player in Herediano's 2013 Summer championship. Los Rojiamarillos would return to the final in the winter season, but they ultimately fell to L.D. Alajuelense in penalty kicks.

    At only 23, Francis brings a championship pedigree only matched by his dynamism both on and off the ball.

    According to Cody Sharrett on the club's official website, head coach Gregg Berhalter has offensive expectations for the young Costa Rican:

    [Francis] is going to add to the offensive side of the game, there's no question. He has the conditioning to get up and down the field, so we're going to rely on that...His athleticism and conditioning, he can get up and down the field very easily. He has an unpredictability. He can shoot from outside, he can cross the ball. He's obviously left-footed, those are all good qualities.

    Francis' improvisational skills are a major asset and will ameliorate the lack of productivity from the left side of the formation. His familiarity with MLS competition will assist in his acclimation to the league.

    Don't expect another goose egg in 2014.

The Player to Watch: Michael Parkhurst

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    There could be implications for both club and country in this storyline.

    Michael Parkhurst wasn't just out of favor at FC Augsburg—he was out of the picture entirely. The 30-year-old made just two appearances for the Bavarian side after signing in 2012. His World Cup stock took a massive blow.

    A move to Columbus was made to resuscitate them.

    As reported by Blair Angulo on MLS's official website, Parkhurst remains optimistic a few months ahead of Brazil:

    In the summer I got a lot of opportunities with the national team and I was in camp for the World Cup qualifiers and with the Gold Cup team. In that way, [my time at Augsburg] didn't hinder me too much but at the same time, I think if I was playing regularly I could have fought for the starting position at right back. I could have made that mine, I feel like. But there's still five months left and now that I'm back at MLS and hopefully playing on a weekly basis I can make a push for the team.

    Parkhurst's versatility works in his favor.

    He predominately featured at right-back during a successful run for the United States in the 2013 Gold Cup. On Feb. 1, Parkhurst started and played all 90 minutes in a friendly against South Korea. Only eight of his 70 attempted passes failed to hit their mark. Defending well on the left, six recoveries were attributed to his side.

    But while many want to throw Parkhurst's name into the outside-back discussion for the U.S. men's national team, Coach Berhalter thinks otherwise. The newly hired coach remains steadfast in his position to feature Parkhurst at center-back for the Crew this season. Columbus' flirtation with a 3-5-2 in the preseason sheds light on the reasoning behind his adamance.

    Maybe, if he feels so inclined, opportunities at right-back will appear this season.

    Fingers crossed those opportunities come early.

    Parkhurst's World Cup chances aren't as slim as you think.

    Brad Evans, who featured heavily in the World Cup qualifiers, doesn't even play the position for the Seattle Sounders. His abysmal performance against South Korea didn't silence any doubters, either. 

    An injury to Timothy Chandler limited the talent pool at the position for Jurgen Klinsmann. Eric Lichaj wasn't even in the final 18 against South Korea, and Steve Cherundolo has been losing the battle to his knees since 2012. 

    According to Steven Goff of the Washington Post, the favorite to start at right-back in Brazil is former MLS player Geoff Cameron.

    Parkhurst ranks third behind Cameron and Evans. But with a successful start to 2014, Klinsmann will be forced to take a hard look at a player with 22 caps.

    The question is: Will Berhalter put Parkhurst in the "right" position for that to happen?  

     

    Honorable Mention

    The storyline is with Parkhurst, but the captivation is with Federico Higuain. The Argentine is entering his third season with the Crew and will look to deliver more majestic finishes in 2014.

The Match to Watch: The Trillium Cup

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    Greg Bartram/Getty Images

    August 9, 2014.

    Columbus' first showdown with Toronto FC comes only five weeks after the start of the season. By that time, clubs will still be looking to find that midseason form. Both clubs could be missing key players in May's rematch. Michael Bradley is a virtual lock to be in Brazil. Jermain Defoe is still holding onto his World Cup chances with England, and we just examined Parkhurst's chances.

    It's the third and possibly deciding match of the Trillium Cup to look forward to this year.

    The Crew have owned TFC in recent years. Five of the previous six Trillium Cups have landed in Columbus. Even more resounding, the Reds have just two victories in 19 all-time meetings.

    But with the overhauling of Toronto's roster, expect things to be a bit more competitive in 2014.

    Come August, all international competitions will have passed. Both clubs will be in midseason form and ready to enter the final third of the MLS season. 

    Three points could prove to be momentous enough for the victor down the final stretch.

     

    Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics.

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