An unprecedented trophy-haul seemed possible for the Columbus Crew at the outset of their season. The team jumped out to a 7-2-3 record in its first 12 games — the best start in club history — and fans began to dream of both Supporters’ Shield (best regular season record) and the MLS Cup championship. In September, a third trophy appeared on the horizon when Columbus clinched a date in the finale of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship.

Fast-forward to the night of Nov. 6. After losing both the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield titles weeks earlier, Columbus lost a penalty shootout to the Colorado Rapids and were eliminated from the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive year.

Though the 2010 season held much promise, the Crew didn’t add a single piece of hardware to their trophy case.

All told, 2010 yielded a 14-8-8 final record, a runner-up finish in the U.S. Open Cup, a first-round exit from the playoffs and advancement to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal round (set to begin in February) for the Crew.

All manner of news media searched for answers from grim-faced Columbus players following the season-ending penalty kick shootout loss. Crew defender and team captain Frankie Hejduk overheard a reporter ask forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto to speak on the differences between the 2010 edition of the Crew and the great MLS Cup champion Crew team of 2008.

“Fifteen games was the difference,” Hejduk yelled through a crowd of reporters.

Columbus has competed in 42 games between March 17 and Nov. 6. Hejduk’s comment was a reference to that congested and tiring schedule, as well as an insinuation that the frequency of matches was to blame for the Crew’s late-season burnout.

However, Hejduk later spoke positively about the team’s 2010 campaign.

“If you told me at the start of the season that we’d go to the [U.S.] Open Cup final, advance out of our group in the [CONCACAF] Champions League and make the playoffs, I’d take it,” Hejduk said.

Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha’s evaluation of the season was more straightforward.

“Last year, we lost both games in the playoffs. This year we won one,” Warzycha said. “We had more points [in the standings] than last year, that’s a step forward.”

But is it a step forward?

Columbus staggered into the playoffs, posting a 2-3-4 league record in its final nine matches of the regular season, with the two wins coming against lowly D.C. United and the expansion Philadelphia Union. This stretch run, which also included a 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup final, cost them confidence heading into the playoffs.

Warzycha maintained his position, though, saying, “We went a little further this year.”