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MLS 2011 Preview: Columbus Crew Start Their Rebuilding

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

On the surface, the Crew will play a 4-4-2 as in previous years; because of the many personnel changes this offseason, however, the team’s style may be very different. William Hesmer is the presumptive starter in goal, with Sebastian Miranda playing right back and Shaun Francis on the left. Andy Iro and Chad Marshall are the first-choice center backs. Midfield is a bit harder to anticipate. Cole Grossman played holding midfield in the Champions League, but seemed a bit lost at times; meanwhile fellow rookie Rich Balchan has generated some buzz with his play and versatility and may be a more viable candidate to fill Brian Carroll’s shoes. Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven are the likely starters on the wings, leaving - for now - Emmanuel Ekpo to try and create from the center. Andres Mendoza and Emilio Renteria should start at forward, although Jeff Cunningham and Justin Meram have set ambitious goals for themselves and should not be counted out. Dilly Duka and Leandre Griffit are options in the midfield, with the former being another player who has reportedly impressed in preseason.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

The team has so far not signed a marquee name, so "biggest impact" may be a relative term. Right back Sebastian Miranda impressed with his debut against Real Salt Lake, demonstrating an understanding with Robbie Rogers that could give opposing wingers fits. Rich Balchan is another name that has garnered a lot of attention. After being described - by himself as well as others - as primarily a right back, he has played almost every defensive position in preseason and done so capably. Julius James, signed as a backup to Chad Marshall, could find himself starting if the two-time Defender of the Year is sidelined for any significant time with concussion-like symptoms.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Argentine’s presence on the field dictated how the team would play, and the success they have had, over the past four years. He made fouling the Crew a dangerous proposition, and the rest of the team was built to allow him to work his magic from a forward’s position. Now that Schelotto is gone, the team is having to restructure its identity. Where before the team often fielded two defensive-minded central midfielders in order to give Schelotto space to operate, now players like Duka, Ekpo or Gaven have an opportunity to direct the attack from midfield, with two more traditional in-the-box forwards acting as targets. Brian Carroll is another player whose absence may be painful at times, particularly in light of the changes at the front. The ripple effect of playing two forwards means that more pressure will be placed on the one remaining holding midfielder - where rookie Cole Grossman has played thus far.

At what point is this season considered success?

With no CONCACAF Champions League campaign - and apparently no SuperLiga - to complicate the schedule, the Crew will be judged almost entirely on their playoff success. Since their magical MLS Cup run in 2008, the team has lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons (albeit to the eventual champions each time), and it is the memory of these failures which must be erased. Simply making the playoffs is an expectation at this point, not the mark of a successful season - although, given the turnover on the roster, an argument could be made that simply repeating the past is an accomplishment. Other achievements, like the Eastern Conference Championship, a Supporters' Shield, or a deep run in the Open Cup, would be welcome but cannot excuse a third early exit from the playoffs.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

"Central Midfielder" - stated this way because, thus far, there is no clear indication who will fill this role. If the team can find someone - either a returning player or new signing - who can orchestrate the attack and elicit great performances from his fellow players then the Crew could make a lot of noise late in the season. There are a lot of talented players on this roster, but many of them - like Robbie Rogers, Andres Mendoza and Emmanuel Ekpo - seem to be burdened by their potential. The team’s ability to help these and other players deliver on their obvious talent will determine whether 2011 is a season to remember, or a failed experiment.

- Report by Matt Bernardt of Massive Report/Columbus Crew Examiner