By THOMAS FLOYD
Riddled by inconsistency, the Columbus Crew attack just never seemed to quite find the right rhythm in 2011.
Up front, Emilio Renteria's injury concerns and Andres Mendoza's erratic play limited Columbus' front-line cohesion. While wingers Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven provided steady threats from the flanks, the team struggled to find production out of central midfield.
Although a stable back line disguised such issues early in the campaign, when Columbus at one point registered four straight shutouts, the unit began to fade in the season's second half. After sitting atop the Eastern Conference in mid-August, the Crew finished the season 2-6-1 before crashing out of the playoffs with a 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids in a wild-card match.
"We usually played very good defense, which meant we were going to be in every game, but it was putting the ball in the other team's net that sometimes wasn't there," Gaven said. "So hopefully we can be a little more consistent with that this year."
Here is a closer look at the Crew ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
COLUMBUS CREW SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 13-13-8, 47 points (fourth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Milovan Mirosevic, F Olman Vargas, D Carlos Mendes, F Ben Speas, F Ethan Finlay, D Aubrey Perry, M Kevan George
KEY LOSSES: M Robbie Rogers, F Andres Mendoza, F Jeff Cunningham, M Emmanuel Ekpo, D Josh Gardner, M Dejan Rusmir, M Kevin Burns
After parting ways with Mendoza, whose eight goals from the run of play in 29 games didn't justify his Designated Player billing, and attacking midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo, who recorded just one goal and two assists in 32 appearances, the Crew hope they have found upgrades in a pair of international signings: Costa Rican striker Olman Vargas and Chilean midfielder Milovan Mirosevic.
Though coach Robert Warzycha noted Vargas has been slowed by injury this preseason, the fourth-year boss said Mirosevic has been integrated into the Columbus midfield and so far is "doing a fantastic job for us," hailing the 31-year-old as a "complete player."
Since Columbus cut ties with playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto at the end of the 2010 season, the club has looked for a creative, technically sound presence to fill that void. A talented player established in the Chilean national team pool as the country attempts to qualify for its second-straight World Cup, Mirosevic could very well be that player if he can develop a solid rapport with Vargas, Renteria and the rest of his new Columbus teammates.
"We're just going to keep on trying to work every single day during training and in our games to try and gel so when we go out there during the actual season, we can get some more goals," Gaven said of integrating the team's new attacking pieces. "We hope we're going to be very dynamic, obviously."
Columbus also is relying on the increased contributions of a pair of holdovers in midfield. The team will finally see what it has in defensive midfielder Tony Tchani, who because of knee troubles made just one appearance for Columbus last season — playing 90 minutes in a playoff game, no less — after being acquired in an July trade with Toronto FC.
And Robbie Rogers, the team's assist leader, signed with English side Leeds United, leaving a starting slot on the left side of midfield for Dilly Duka. The 22-year-old Rutgers product, who notched two goals and three assists in 22 games (16 starts) last season, seems poised for a breakout year after spending his offseason on tour with the MLS Generation Adidas squad and in camp with the U.S. Under-23 national team.
"Dilly made some unbelievable strides since the end of last season," Warzycha said. "He's matured a lot, and I think he's going to be one of our best players because he has the ability to hold the ball, to see things on the field, and obviously he's very gifted."
In the back, Columbus returns three defenders — Sebastian Miranda, Julius James and captain Chad Marshall — who started at least 31 games last year, though left back Shaun Francis remains a question mark after injury limited the Jamaican to six appearances in 2011.
If health permits it, one can expect the Crew's first-choice defenders to tackle a similar workload this season. After all, Columbus learned all too well last year how crucial each match can be in a crowded Eastern Conference, as the Crew finished just four points out of first place but found themselves on the road for the wild-card round all the same.
"And I think it's going to be more competitive than last year, to be honest," Warzycha said. "It's going to be very tight."