For the first time in four seasons the Columbus Crew will not participate in Major League Soccer’s postseason.
Lewis Neal scored a stoppage time goal to give DC the 3-2 victory, thus cementing their own playoff spot. The loss, coupled with a Houston victory over Philadelphia, leaves Columbus hanging their heads after a very upstart, emotional second half of the season. For the first time in awhile the Crew will be watching the playoffs from home. To put things in perspective: the last time Columbus failed to make the playoffs was 2007. They won the MLS Cup the following year.
It would be one thing if they failed because they had a roster comparable to Toronto FC’s. But there are several reasons why this is such a bitter pill to swallow for Crew fans.
For starters, the team came so close and fell short despite the fact that two of its two best players (Higuain and Jairo Arrieta) were only around for a small portion of the season. Quite frankly, the beginning of the 2012 season looked bleak after William Hesmer went down and the team was still searching for a legitimate goal scoring threat up top. Not only that, but literally half the roster missed a decent amount of playing time at one point or another due to injury. Rookie home grown signing Ben Speas took a huge step back in his development by missing the entire season with an abdominal injury. Second year player Rich Balchan had a very promising rookie season last year, only to miss a large portion of this season and have his own development set back. Andy Gruenebaum came out of nowhere to play like an All-Star all season long. This Crew team had no business making the playoffs until Arrieta and Higuain arrived and changed everything. This was a golden opportunity to show the league that, even during a down year, the Crew are still a good club.
One of the reasons the Crew fell short is because of some terrible losses. Saturday night was bad enough, but there are several others that are especially painful to remember. The worst was August’s 2-2 draw with Houston after newcomer Higuain had helped the Crew take the lead, only to lose it due to an absurd error by Andy Gruenebaum. Then there were golden opportunities blown by losing to New England in August (0-2), Montreal in July (1-2), Chicago (1-2 in June), and an early season loss to Philadelphia in April. Such missed opportunities are ultimately the reason why the Crew came up short this year.
Of course, the reason such opportunities were blown was because of a truly pitiful defense. In the past the Columbus back line was quite impenetrable with Chad Marshall leading the way. But this year the Crew defense leaked a ton of goals thanks to a revolving door of second center backs like Julius James, Carlos Mendes, Danny O’Rourke, and Eric Gehrig, Scoring has always been the Crew’s biggest weakness, but as soon as Arrieta and Higuain arrived the trends were reversed. Technical Director Brian Bliss should make finding the next Chad Marshall his top priority this offseason.
For me, however, the most difficult part of not making the playoffs comes from simply looking across the country. The Crew have 49 points with one game left to play and are on the outside looking in. In the Western Conference, your final playoff team is…the Vancouver Whitecaps with a whopping 42. And if this were any other year, the ridiculous playoff structure would have let Columbus in over Vancouver. In years past the best team, regardless of conference affiliation, made the playoffs. Not this year. And you can bet if Columbus was in and Houston out, people would be screaming about why Houston had to sit out and why they couldn’t play in the Western Conference.
There will lots to talk about regarding Columbus’ upcoming offseason, but for now we’re left to mope and wonder.