Crew Season Preview: Back in Black (and Gold)

Chris DeVille, Columbus Alive

Opening on the road can be a nightmare, and the Crew's 2-0 loss at Colorado two weeks ago certainly fell short of dreamy. But home openers seem so much more inviting, especially with an expansion team like the Montreal Impact on tap. Here's everything you need to know to get ready for Saturday's 4 p.m. kickoff.

Five storylines to watch

(1) In pursuit of firepower: The Crew was inconsistent across the board last season, but its most glaring flaw was the lack of a reliable goal-scorer. If he can stay healthy, Emilio Renteria could be the answer; the burly Venezuelan tallied eight goals in 1,159 minutes last season, averaging one goal every 144 minutes. Maintain that pace full-time and Renteria would be pushing 20 tallies. But he never stays healthy, and barring a breakout star off the bench, they might have to look elsewhere for a surefire scoring threat. Speaking of which …

(2) The hunt for a D.P.: When David Beckham signed with the Galaxy in 2007, MLS created the designated player (D.P.) rule, which allows teams to pay up to three players above the salary cap. In 2009 the Crew paid Guillermo Barros Schelotto D.P. money; last year the D.P. was Andres Mendoza, who has since been axed. Coach Robert Warzycha said the Crew has its eye on international strikers, though any player under contract elsewhere must be acquired before the international transfer window closes April 15. If not then, another window opens from June 27-July 27.

(3) The battle for the goalmouth: No one has posted more shutouts in club history than William Hesmer. But backup Andy Gruenebaum has always been hanging around, ably filling in when opportunity knocks. And with Hesmer working back from a preseason ankle injury - he expects to be in net Saturday - the chances of Gruenebaum supplanting him seem as good as ever.

(4) Making sense of midfield: While Eddie Gaven, Dilly Duka and rookie Ethan Finlay are viable options on the wings, the central midfield has yet to gel. In Colorado, the all-new lineup of Milovan Mirosevic, Kirk Urso and Tony Tchani (after debuting in last season's final game, he's basically new) struggled to get on the same page. They need to cohere quickly if the Crew is to accomplish anything.

(5) The tale of the tickets: At the dawn of MLS, Columbus was always among the attendance leaders. But a playoff draught from 2005-07 scared away fans, many of whom didn't return even after the Crew won MLS Cup in 2008. Last year, with average attendance at an all-time high 17,872 league-wide, the Crew averaged a measly 12,185, the second worst in MLS. The "Dare To Be Massive" campaign, launched last September, aimed to increase the season ticket base to 10,000, a goal not yet attained.

New kids in town

After parting ways with perennial frustrations Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo and Andres Mendoza, the Crew restocked its roster with lots of new faces. Here's a quick intro.

Ethan Finlay, Midfielder

Age: 21

How acquired: First-round draft pick (Creighton)

Prognosis: The feisty winger showed promise after subbing for an injured Dilly Duka in Colorado.

Kevan George, Midfielder

Age: 22

How acquired: Second-round draft pick (University of Central Florida)

Prognosis: An Olympic hopeful for Trinidad and Tobago, the 6'2" George could bring the ruckus once he returns from training with T&T's U-23 national team.

Matt Lampson, Goalkeeper

Age: 22

How acquired: Bypassed MLS SuperDraft to sign as a Homegrown Player

Prognosis: A Crew Soccer Academy product and OSU grad, Lampson has deep roots in Columbus, but for now he's stuck behind veterans William Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum on the depth chart.

Carlos Mendes, Defender

Age: 31

How acquired: MLS Re-Entry Draft (waived by New York Red Bulls)

Prognosis: He missed the Colorado game because of an injury, but he looks set to start at left back when healthy, especially after Shaun Francis' horrendous performance in Colorado.

Milovan Mirosevic, Midfielder-Forward

Age: 31

How acquired: Free agent signing

Prognosis: The Crew hopes Mirosevic, a journeyman who has played in Argentina, Israel and his native Chile, can be a playmaker on par with Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Aubrey Perry, Defender

Age: 22

How acquired: Second-round draft pick (University of South Florida)

Prognosis: Perry is set to back up Sebastian Miranda at right back.

Ben Speas, Forward

Age: 21

How acquired: Bypassed MLS SuperDraft to sign as a Homegrown Player

Prognosis: A Crew Soccer Academy product, Speas was NCAA College Cup MVP with North Carolina and was named Soccer America's College Player of the Year. The Crew needs offense badly. You do the math.

Kirk Urso, Midfielder

Age: 22

How acquired: First-round supplemental draft pick (North Carolina)

Prognosis: Speas' Tar Heels teammate seems to have locked up a starting slot in defensive midfield.

Sixth annual Crewsmas Eve Party

Crewsmas Eve began as an informal gathering of friends the night before the Crew's first home game. Five years later, it's an official event of supporters club Crew Union replete with free beer, free food and the unveiling of new Homage gear. Season tickets in Crew Union's Nordecke section will be on sale for $306.

Coach Robert Warzycha, former player Duncan Oughton and GM Mark McCullers have attended previous Crewsmas parties.

"It's open to everybody," Crew Union spokesman John Clem said. "It started more with a small group of friends that just kind of started getting bigger and bigger."

Fourth Street Patio Bar and Grill

6 p.m. Friday, March 23

1810 N. 4th St., Campus

First Kick: Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact

Columbus Crew Stadium

4 p.m. Saturday, March 24

1 Black & Gold Blvd., North Side