The Columbus Crew were eliminated from the MLS playoffs after a 7-3 aggregate defeat to the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, despite being knocked out of the postseason, the Crew is set for a successful campaign in 2015 and in the coming years.
Even before Columbus rebranded, there were signs that ownership was willing to make the Crew serious competitors in MLS. They signed defender Emanuel Pogatetz to replace the outgoing Giancarlo Gonzalez and then inked Kei Kamara shortly thereafter. There's also been rumours that Atalanta striker German Denis might arrive next season, according to MLSTransfers.com.
The ambition that the club is showing is a great sign for fans, especially now that the Eastern Conference won't contain Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo beginning in 2015. Therefore, the Crew could realistically compete for first place providing they stay competitive in the transfer market.
Columbus already has a solid coach in Gregg Berhalter, who is one of the best young coaches in the league. Despite some struggles early in the campaign, Berhalter led the Crew to 10 wins in their final 15 games of the regular season, which ultimately resulted in their third-place finish.
The ability to steer the club away from disaster and guide them into the playoffs was a great thing for Berhalter. He never lost confidence in his side and was able to get them on the right path. It’s very important for a coach to handle the bad runs of form and overcome them in the end.
The squad has a hole or two but is already solid. The Crew has arguably the best holding-midfield duo in Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani. Captain Federico Higuain is a top-tier attacking midfielder in MLS and is surrounded by solid wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay.
The defense is strong with Pogatetz, Michael Parkhurst, Tyson Wahl and Waylon Francis, but Columbus could consider a full-back upgrade.
The Crew should be excited. They haven’t seen this level of optimism since 2008, when they won 17 of 30 matches en route to an MLS Cup win under ex-head coach and current Seattle boss Sigi Schmid. They boasted the best attack of any other team that year, conceding the third-fewest amount of goals.
Columbus nearly replicated those entertaining performances from 2008 during the 2014 season. However, since they're in a small market, they didn't get a lot of recognition. The elimination from the playoffs didn’t help in attracting neutrals, but they should soon change their minds.
If the Crew can sign a striker and possibly an extra full-back, they would be in very good shape. Jairo Arrieta has only scored 17 goals in 67 appearances since joining Columbus, and Aaron Schoenfeld is a formidable striker but cannot play up top by himself. Adding someone like Denis would guarantee goals.
Their only competition in a revamped Eastern Conference is the Revolution, D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, so finishing in a playoff spot has to be the minimum expectation at this point.
A season similar to 2008 can be repeated again if ownership helps Berhalter improve the team. If so, Columbus will be a threat in MLS next year.