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'14 Season Preview: Berhalter's reign begins in Columbus

Columbus, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - There is no doubt that the high point in the history of the Columbus Crew was the team's 2008 campaign, which saw Sigi Schmid's side capture the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.

But the subsequent five years have seen the club embark on a steady decline with Schmid departing for Seattle after the 2008 campaign, leaving Robert Warzycha at the helm.

Columbus reached the postseason in Warzycha's first three years, but a two- year playoff drought followed that saw Warzycha fail to make it through last season, leaving Brian Bliss to finish out the final eight games on an interim basis.

Clearly a new voice was needed in the Crew dressing room, and the man who will take the reigns this season is Gregg Berhalter.

The former United States international became the first American to manage a club in Europe when he took over Swedish side Hammarby in December 2011.

And after being hired by the Crew this past November, Berhalter has wasted little time in making his mark.

The Columbus back line will have a different look this season with Berhalter letting go of defenders Glauber, Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke and shedding some salary in the process.

To replace that trio, Berhalter has brought in U.S. national team defender Michael Parkhurst as well as Costa Rican defenders Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis.

In making those moves Berhalter acknowledged that his new defenders "fit nicely" into the club's financial structure, although they will be giving up some height in the back with Gonzalez expected to be the only regular starter who stands over 6 feet tall.

The other area that Berhalter must address is the leadership void left by the departures of Marshall, O'Rourke, Eddie Gaven and Andy Gruenebaum, who were the last remaining members of the 2008 championship team.

Berhalter is hopeful that one player who can step up to fill that void is forward Dominic Oduro, who is in just his second season with the Crew but who has eight years of MLS experience under his belt.

"He's a veteran, he's a high-performing guy and I think he's important to the squad," Berhalter said of Oduro. "That's something where we would like him to take that role on in terms of being one of the veteran leaders in the team. He's been around MLS for how many years? A long time. He has a good track record in this league. I think that's a natural fit for him."

In addition to increased leadership responsibilities, Oduro will once again be counted on to lead the Crew's offensive unit, which he did last season with 13 goals.

Federico Higuain will be the focal point of the offense as the club will rely heavily on his creative skill to generate goals.

The Argentine tallied 11 goals last year to go with nine assists, and in addition to Oduro, he will be expected to play a role in the success of Jairo Arrieta. The 30-year-old netted three goals with four assists in his first full season with the Crew last year and he will be expected to build on that output.

Columbus will also be breaking in a new goalkeeper as Steve Clark is likely to take over the first-choice duties between the posts with the departure of Gruenebaum, who started 21 league games last season.

Clark has spent the past four seasons in Norway with Honefoss before he returned to the United States in December to join the Crew, and he will compete with Matt Lampson for the number one job.

ACQUISITIONS: Daniel Paladini (M), Michael Parkhurst (D), Hector Jimenez (M), Giancarlo Gonzalez (D), Waylon Francis (D), Steve Clark (GK).

LOSSES: Eddie Gaven (M), Matias Sanchez (M), Glauber (D), Danny O'Rourke (D/M), Konrad Warzycha (M), Chad Marshall (D), Andy Gruenebaum (GK).

OUTLOOK: If everything falls the right way for the Crew this is a team that should contend for a playoff spot in the East. But there are a number of things that must happen for Berhalter's first season to be a success. The back line must jell quickly with a trio of new faces including Parkhurst, Gonzalez and Francis, who will be playing in front of either Clark or Lampson in goal. Another strong campaign from Oduro is needed, while Columbus will hope that Arrieta is able to increase his production and provide another viable option in attack. The East figures to be a very balanced conference this year, and the Crew will need things to come together quickly or risk falling behind.