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Columbus Crew counting on an improved midfield to lead them back to MLS playoffs

New signing Mohammed Abu and homegrown favorite Wil Trapp will need to step up if Crew SC is going to contend again.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

You can find the entire 2017 MLS season preview here!

Coming off an MLS Cup finals appearance, the Columbus Crew seemed poised to begin a new era of competitiveness. Instead, they missed the playoffs for the third time in five years. Despite that disappointment, it doesn’t seem as though the organization is overreacting at all, retaining manager Gregg Berhalter and mostly working on improving the squad’s depth and quality in key areas instead of making sweeping changes like many other clubs would have.

That patience is something they’ll hope proves to be rewarded, and there’s reason to think it will — the younger parts of their team look ready to step up in a big way, and the additions of Jonathan Mensah and Jukka Raitala look like intriguing additions that will help Crew SC in areas they struggled with a year ago. Considering this is largely the same team that looked so good in 2015 — and even showed glimmers of it last year — a quick turnaround doesn’t seem out of the question.

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Posted by Massive Report on Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Key facts

2016 record: 8-14-12, ninth place in Eastern Conference

2016 playoffs: Did not qualify

Head coach: Gregg Berhalter

Key additions: Jonathan Mensah, Mohammed Abu, and Jukka Raitala

Key losses: Michael Parkhurst, Steve Clark, and Mohammed Saeid

Projected starting XI (4-2-3-1): Zack Steffen; Jukka Raitala, Jonathan Mensah, Nicolai Naess, Harrison Afful; Mohammed Abu, Wil Trapp; Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, Ethan Finlay; Ola Kamara

Major trophies won, all-time: 2008 MLS Cup; 2004, 2008, 2009 Supporters Shield; 2002 U.S. Open Cup

What we think of our team: Last year, when Crew SC entered as an MLS Cup favorite but faltered badly all year long, was a bad dream and this team is primed for a playoff rebound.

What outsiders think of our team: “It may be unfair, but the small market of Columbus means the team needs to be a lot of fun to watch for outsiders to pay much attention. Things have definitely been better with Berhalter in charge, but when they’re bad, they’re mostly forgotten by the rest of the league.”

Columbus Crew SC’s biggest rival: The Chicago Fire. Not only are they the closest team to Columbus, but there is a history of close-fought contests, stunning victory, and disappointment on both sides of the rivalry. Both are hoping to get back into the playoffs.

Best social media follow: @GroundsCrewSC on Twitter — who knew watching grass grow could be so much fun?

Our season hinges on a cohesive central midfield. The defense struggled last year as the midfield wilted. Wil Trapp regressed, Tony Tchani wasn't able to physically impose himself, and Mohammed Saeid was often pushed around. That needs to change if Crew SC are going to have a functioning defense and a dynamic attack. This season hinges on how well the parts in central midfield come together.

Why this year won’t be like last year: Defensive reinforcements Jonathan Mensah and Jukka Raitala appear to be starting-caliber upgrades. Josh Williams, Alex Crognale, and Lalas Abubakar provide depth that was lacking last year. The defense was often overrun, but now should have consistent quality in place of aging or injured key players.

Key player: Federico Higuain. More than any other player, Crew SC’s 2016 started sinking when he was absent during the middle of the season due to injury.

Predicted finish in 2017: Ninth in the Eastern Conference.

Wild prediction: In some ways, Crew SC are the opposite of wild. The ownership is patient and the coach is steadfast in how the team plays and it's unlikely either will change. But this team did trade their MVP finalist last season. It may not be “wild” but the prediction is that Berhalter’s high-tempo style will go back to working. Crew SC will spring out to the top of the East behind a once again dynamic offense and a solid defense. Kamara and Finlay both get double-digit goal scoring totals while Higuain and Meram tally double-digit assists, and overall Columbus sets the league on fire with a top-scoring offense.