The Columbus Crew embark on the 2013 season - their 18th in Major League Soccer - with a clear if difficult goal. Can coach Robert Warzycha reverse the team's fortunes, which have steadily declined over the past few seasons?
In order to achieve this goal the rebuilt roster must come together more quickly than did last year's team, which stumbled through the first eight games. Last year, after earning two wins and a draw in their first three games the team entered a dry patch, losing four of the next five games. The midseason signings of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain helped compensate for the relative ineffectiveness of Olman Vargas and Milovan Mirosevic, but the team's performance ultimately proved too ineffective to earn a spot in the postseason.
This year, a similar challenge faces the team. Mainstays such as Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall, and Danny O'Rourke remain, but must blend with key newcomers such as Dominic Oduro, Agustin Viana, Matias Sanchez and Glauber. Oduro is a particularly interesting challenge, as early indicators are that he could be forced into a transition similar to that faced by Emilio Renteria.
Oduro spent much of his time with the Chicago Fire as a forward, using his incredible speed to get in behind defenses and score off long runs. Yet in the last few preseason games he has - like Renteria before him - played a wide midfield role to accommodate Arrieta. This fits the style preferred by Warzycha, whose system relies on wide midfielders running the full length of the field - ending in runs into the box while the outside backs overlap into the channels. However this transition will place defensive responsibilities on Oduro, which he has not yet shouldered in his career.
Another interesting roster challenge will be to give appropriate opportunities to the ever-growing number of homegrown players. Aaron Horton's experience - one minute played over two seasons - must not be the norm if the team is to realize the potential of its strong youth academy. Five players on the current roster have signed such contracts: Horton, Matt Lampson, Chad Barson, Ben Speas and Wil Trapp. One of the final players to sign, Kyle Hyland, is also an academy product while not having signed a formal homegrown contract.
Columbus - and its fans - will get their first challenge this Saturday as the team travels to Chivas USA for a late kickoff on Saturday night.