As 2012 draws to a close in a few short hours, the year-end retrospectives have been rolling in for the Columbus Crew. Announcements have also been popping up regarding the 2013 season, both in terms of a preseason itinerary and First Kick.
It is in these moments when many observers - in addition to team officials - step back to look at longer term trends. The team that won MLS Cup in 2008 has been dismantled, and remade in the vision of Robert Warzycha and Brian Bliss. Post-season accomplishments have steadily declined each year, ending last season with a failure to qualify for the playoffs. In the stands, while attendance rebounded admirably from an abysmal 2011, the stadium is rarely filled - depriving the club and players of both passion and money.
The question is, where does the club stand? Are radical changes - to the front office or coaching staff - necessary? Or was last season a blip - the pains of a transition that is laying the groundwork for future success?
The addition of Federico Higuain has been shown to be a shred move in growing the team's midfield. Jairo Arrieta, likewise, has improved the team's attack after underwhelming production from Olman Vargas. On top of this foundation the team has also strengthened its roots, increasingly turning to Homegrown players like Ben Speas and Wil Trapp with an eye on the future.
It is also worth noting that the team also stands to strengthen the qualify of its academy program's recruiting with each successful graduate. Youth players with an eye on a professional career are more likely to follow a proven path - particularly when the academy also has connections with collegiate coaches.
Unfortunately, there are also areas of the field where reinforcements are needed. The club itself has announced the need for a starting-caliber defender. More midfield support - particularly at holding midfielder - is also necessary to stiffen the midfield foundation. Andy Gruenebaum's success this season helped make Will Hesmer expendable, but it remains to be seen whether he will separate himself from the ranks of very capable goalkeepers to attain elite status.
Perhaps the biggest cause for concern, and overshadowing any given position on the field, is the team's continued stumbling in the late season. In each of the last three seasons a promising run of form in mid-summer has dwindled in the late stages of the season; this is particularly challenging given the increasing length of the season as more expansion teams join the league.
In the stands, the Nordecke remains a source of game day passion and excitement. Their impact on the stadium is underlined by the fact that it was their silence, in honor of Kirk Urso, that was recently named the Moment of the Year - were they not so good at providing noise, the silence would have been less powerful. Much like their on-field heroes, however, there is room for growth on this solid foundation. Filling their allocated sections would provide even more noise, in addition to allowing for larger visual displays.
The club also made significant improvements to the game day experience this season by installing banners and large graphics throughout the concourses. This move, which simultaneously masks the spartan construction and (more importantly) emphasizes and celebrates the team's growing history, did a great deal to make Crew games more specifically about this club rather than an interchangeable sporting contest.
At the front office level, the team has claimed a qualified success with their Goal 10K initiative, pointing to a 30-percent increase in season tickets and the aforementioned bounce in game day crowds. The multi-year effort has not yet pushed the team past ten thousand season tickets, however. Game day attendance, while significantly improved, has only reversed previous declines rather than setting records. The ultimate attainment of aggressive goals seems more plausible, and the work of the revamped sales department is to be commended - but much like other areas of the club, there is significant room for improvement.
The Columbus Crew as a whole, in total, thus finds itself in a somewhat uncomfortable middle ground in almost every area. Calls for front office changes come regularly from the fan base, but there is evidence of an emerging new order that warrants continued - not to say unlimited- patience. There is significant off field energy, upon which even greater growth is possible and needed.