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Columbus Crew: New-look side needs to gel quickly

Editor's note: ESPNsoccernet will preview all 12 MLS teams as they prepare for the 2006 season.

2005 record and finish: 11-16-5 (last in Eastern Conference)

Key additions: D Marcos Gonzalez, M Sebastian Rozental, D Joel Kitamirike, D/M Ritchie Kotschau, D Tim Ward, F Jason Garey, F Kei Kamara, D Jed Zayner, D Rusty Pierce

Key losses: D Robin Fraser, M Simon Elliott, M Chris Henderson, D Chris Wingert, F Cornell Glen

Key questions facing this team:

1. With so many new faces, how quickly will this team be able to gel?

As so often happens when a last place team gets a new coach, the Crew roster has undergone a considerable overhaul. And just how quickly the new players blend with the old will go far in determining Columbus' fate.

While new head coach Sigi Schmid has made additions to every area of the field, his rebuilding efforts have focused largely on the backline where at least two new starters, most likely Marcos Gonzalez and Ritchie Kotschau, will be plugged into the back. Given Frankie Hejduk's likely participation in this summer's World Cup, that number rises to three, with the likes of Tim Ward, Joel Kitamirike, and rookie Jed Zayner all vying for time. That will make developing some cohesiveness in defense a challenge, especially given Gonzalez's limited English skills. But if the new acquisitions can settle in quickly and avoid giving up some cheap goals in the early going, that may provide a suitable platform for Columbus' future success.

2. Will the real Edson Buddle please stand up?

Two years ago, Buddle was a goal away from tying for the MLS goal-scoring crown. But last year was a season to forget for the six-year veteran. A highly publicized DUI arrest last August saw Buddle get hit with a three-week suspension. Given his erratic play up to that point, the incident only reinforced the feeling that the former U.S. youth international had fallen well short of expectations, especially given his undeniable talent.

As a result, Buddle was the focus of some of the league's hottest trade rumors over the winter, but that speculation has cooled, for a couple of reasons. For all of the talk about how Buddle has underachieved during his career, he remains the only proven goal scorer on the Crew's roster. And reports out of training camp state that Buddle is fit, has improved his attitude, and has shown a willingness to take on more of a leadership role. That has convinced many that this is the year Buddle lives up to the hype. We'll see.

3. Who will anchor the midfield?

With the departure of Simon Elliott, the holding midfield role represents a massive gap for the Crew to fill. When a preseason trade for Houston midfielder Danny O'Rourke failed to materialize, it was hoped that Duncan Oughton would slot into that role, but complications from last season's knee surgery have pushed his return out into June.

That leaves a smattering of less-than-ideal candidates to fill the position. Rookie Brandon Moss, at 6'1", 180 lbs., certainly has the frame to compete in the middle, and his play in preseason has earned him the tag as one of the most pleasant surprises of the Crew's training camp. But his lack of experience has Schmid looking at some alternatives, including trialists Jose Retiz and Leonard Bisaku. Given the journeyman status of both players, it leaves one to believe that the search will continue deep into the season.

Biggest X-factor: Sebastian Rozental

Perhaps the Crew's biggest offseason acquisition, Rozental is Columbus' version of Youri Djorkaeff, the good and the bad of that. Like Djorkaeff, Rozental will be asked to orchestrate the attack, and while his pedigree isn't as illustrious as the Frenchman's, Rozental does boast an impressive resume, having played four years for Scottish powerhouse Rangers, while also making 35 appearances for the Chilean national team.

But questions abound about Rozental's fitness and mobility. Rozental has a history of knee trouble, and a considerable amount of time has been spent this spring getting him into shape. In a league that is not only physical, but rife with quality defensive midfielders, it will be interesting to see how Rozental holds up.

The Crew are no doubt hoping that the Chilean's passing ability, experience, and soccer IQ will carry the day. They had better, because the other candidates for the attacking midfield role, such as Kyle Martino and Eric Vasquez have yet to show the kind of consistency the position requires.

Breakout player to watch: Marcos Gonzalez

Given the level of underachievement displayed by the side last year, there are certainly plenty of candidates from which to choose. Buddle, Szetela, and Martino have long been touted as future MLS stars, only to fall well short of those predictions.

It's possible that any one of those individuals could break through this year, but the player most likely to make an impression is Columbus' other Chilean import, Gonzalez. Early reports have it that Gonzalez and Chad Marshall are meshing well, and the former has also impressed with his aerial ability, tackling, and reading of the game.

MLS's brief history is littered with foreign imports who failed to deliver. But in Gonzalez, 25, the Crew are getting a player in his prime, and the hope is that the central defender will deliver some prime-time performances.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Sigi Schmid is someone who knows the league in every aspect, especially how to manipulate the system with trades and the salary cap. I worry a little about Edson Buddle personally. They've changed the forwards in Columbus so often that he has always been in the middle of that in terms of figuring out who he was going to play with. Kyle Martino is the guy who needs to play well with Edson. They could be a team to watch. They're typically well-organized, and have some young talent on the back line. I would assume that, as a Sigi Schmid team, in the middle of the season, they'll probably be at their best."

Outlook:

It may be a cliché, but in the case of Columbus, it's accurate: they have nowhere to go but up. That's especially true with the arrival of Schmid, who will no doubt instill a tougher, hungrier attitude in his charges. But the bottom line is that this team is counting on several key players to rebound from subpar seasons, and that hampers their chances of returning to the playoffs.

With Jonny Walker sidelined by an ailing back, Jon Busch returns in goal, and despite all of the changes to the backline, the defense appears solid. So much so in fact that the Crew find themselves two-deep at practically every defensive position, with a nice blend of youth and experience.

Some solid depth exists up top as well, where there is plenty of competition to partner Buddle. At present, rookies Jason Garey and Kei Kamara are battling veteran John Wolyniec and second year man Knox Cameron.

The same can't be said for the midfield, and that's where this team will live or die. Even if Rozental lives up to expectations, the Crew will need more than just one player to set the table for the likes of Buddle. That means players such as Szetela and Martino will need to raise their games considerably in order for the Crew to have success.

That said, expect a much-improved Columbus team to take the field this year, and with Schmid's influence, it's one that should be good enough to sneak into the playoffs.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com