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Rookies hold spots as Columbus makes cuts

The Crew roster that ended the 2009 season in November with an ego-busting Eastern Conference semifinal series loss to Real Salt Lake isn’t much different than the one that will open the season Saturday at home against Toronto FC.

The one notable exception is the departure of starting forward Alejandro Moreno, who went to Philadelphia in the expansion draft. He has been replaced on the roster by Colombian striker Sergio Herrera.

“Why change a good thing?” captain Frankie Hejduk said. “For the last two years we’ve been Supporters’ Shield winners, won an MLS Cup (2008). The one playoff thing didn’t go our way last year but everything else did.”

Still, coach Robert Warzycha said at the conclusion of last season that he wanted “fresh blood” to reenergize a team that is looking to build on its success.

Freshness will come at the bottom of the roster in the form of three rookies—rookies Dilly Duka, Shaun Francis and Othaniel Yanez.

They form three-fourths of what used to be the developmental roster—it has no name for now after the new collective bargaining agreement—and along with third-year midfielder Kevin Burns, do not count against the salary cap or what’s considered the 20-man “senior” roster.

The Crew released two members of last year’s developmental squad this week to be roster compliant by Wednesday’s deadline. Midfielder Cory Elenio missed the 2008 season because of injuries and appeared in one league match last season. Midfielder Alex Grendi was the lone rookie on the team last season and played three games with one assist. Plus, rookie forward Bright Dike was not offered a contract, and defender/midfielder Kwaku Nyamekye is finishing his studies at Harvard.

“It’s always tough when you lose the 23rd, 24th player if that’s what you want to call it,” goalkeeper William Hesmer said. “These are sad times. We’re one of the closest teams in the league. We’re genuinely friends with each other and spend our time away from the field with each other.

“The fans don’t see the little things those guys bring into a locker room. When you bring a new guy into the locker room you never know how he’s going to fit in and act but we understand that’s the nature of the business.”

Making an impact won’t be easy for any of the newcomers.

“Unfortunately for the guys that are new to the roster it comes down to they’re coming to a strong team already,” Crew technical director Brian Bliss said. “It’s difficult to break in. We have a good core of veterans, a good core of middle-aged players and a decent amount of young players. It’s not an easy team to break into.”

Francis, a 23-year-old Jamaican, could add depth at left back but he knows there is a learning curve.

“Here you’ve got to move quickly with the ball, think quickly on your feet and you have to concentrate a lot and you have to have more options,” he said. “It’s not really pressure but you know you come here to do a job and you’re job is to make the first team. That’s the only pressure that’s there.”

Duka, 20, has played for the U.S. Under-20 team and is expected to provide some much needed verve once he fully recovers from a lingering ankle injuries.

“I’m getting back on track,” he said. “I was out two weeks, came back a week and was out another two.”

“Duka’s got a skill set we haven’t seen in awhile in any of our draft picks,” Bliss said. “That’s somebody who can get things done in the final third. Although he hasn’t done that yet we’ve seen bits and pieces of it. I know he’s got remnants of an ankle injury that he’s getting over.”

Yanez, 22, was considered a long shot by some to make the team but not Warzycha.

“To be honest with you, he isn’t a surprise because he works hard,” the coach said. “He reminds me of Chris Armas. He’s always somewhere on the way. There’s always a lot of him on the field. He has a great engine. He can run forever.”

The Crew will actually start the season with 25 players because goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum (hip surgery) is expected to be on injured reserve a few more weeks. Kenny Schoeni is the backup to Hesmer but if he is released when Gruenebaum is healthy there will be an opening on the “senior” roster. That could be filled by Burns, or another player could be signed.