The Tweet and Lowdown:
The defending-champions target gone, the Crew are a year wiser. And older. Can GBS’s legs hold out? Can Lenhart score a dozen goals?
Setting the Scene:
If the Columbus Crew’s run to its first and only MLS Cup trophy in 2008 was magical, 2009 opened with a gut-punch from reality. Playing under a new coach, Robert Warzycha, and carrying defending champions’ usual heavy expectations, the Crew failed to win in its first seven games.
But it’s hard to keep a talented side down for long. Guillermo Barros Schelotto and a resurgent Eddie Gaven began clicking on offense, while centerback Chad Marshall shored up the backline. The team whipped off five wins in a row midseason and climbed up into first place in the East.
Last season also marked Columbus’s return to the CONCACAF Champions League. Despite struggling against Mexican side Cruz Azul, the Crew finished second in the group to advance to the quarterfinals.
But the extra games took their toll. Road weary and run down, the Crew faltered down the stretch. Though they held onto the conference lead to win the Eastern crown for a second straight season, they lost three of their last four league matches and managed only one goal in that stretch.
The downward spiral continued in playoffs when the Crew face Real Salt Lake in the Conference Semifinals. They lost the away leg, 1-0—with Barros Schelotto controversially starting on the bench—then gave up a late goal in the home leg, going down 3-2 to their eventual successors as MLS champions.
- Players in: Sergio Herrera (Deportivo Cali) Dilly Duka (Rutgers), Bright Dike (Notre Dame) Shaun Francis (Lindsey Wilson College) Kwaku Nyamekye (Harvard)
-Players Out: Alejandro Moreno (Philadelphia Union)
Star Attraction: Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Rumors claimed GBS, the creative genius in Columbus’s attack and a favorite of the supporters in the Nordecke, was headed home to Argentina this offseason. Instead, he renegotiated his contract, forfeited his Designated Player tag, and returned rarin’ to go.
Since joining the Crew in 2007, the Boca Juniors legend has only been the most consistently creative player in the league, notching 24 goals and 33 assists in 73 games. He will, however, turn 37 in May. Can his body hold out?
Unsung Hero: Eddie Gaven
It seems as if Gaven should be about 30 years old by now. He’s been around so long, roving up and down the flank, whipping crosses in, and fearlessly getting into the box, it’s hard to believe he’s still only 23. He’s just entering his prime.
Last year’s goal tally of six was the most since 2005, Gaven’s last season in New York. He thrives in the shadows of Barros Schelotto, running off the Argentine, receiving the ball in space. His crossing has improved, and if his recent Champions League performances are any indication, he looks poised to have a big year.
Ready for Primetime: Steven Lenhart
You can’t miss him on the field, that’s for sure: solid 6-1 frame, floppy blond mane and a demolition-derby style of play. But despite all the accoutrements, Lenhart has the burgeoning talent to match his character. He scored only three goals last season, but for real evidence, check out his two goals against Toluca in the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this month.
With Moreno’s departure to Philly, the striker position is wide open. Warzycha says Lenhart has the potential to snag it. “He is still young,” he tells MLSsoccer.com. “He has to be more consistent. You hope, as a coach, to have someone you can rely on. Maybe that can be Steve.”
Storylines to Watch:
Columbus still has as much if not more talent, all over the pitch, than any side in the league. Doubts creep in based on the lack of consistency from some of the budding stars, namely, Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo. Each is a bristling coltish talent with the potential to change a game on his own. Sometimes they’ve actually done it. Other times, they’ve looked out of their depth. Can they find the right balance?
Same goes for the attack. Last year, while Barros Schelotto was firing on all cylinders, the rest of the striking corps sputtered. The threesome of Moreno, Lenhart, and Jason Garey finished with a combined 11 goals—one less than Barros Schelotto alone. Warzycha needs someone to score in double-digits if they are going to contend for any hardware. The answer could be newcomer Sergio Herrera, who averaged more than 10 goals per season over the last three years at Deportivo Cali.
The defense is still the Crew’s strength. Chad Marshall is the backbone, Brian Carroll does the midfield dirty work, and captain Frankie Hejduk and Gino Padula man the flanks. That leaves Eric Brunner. Too many mistakes by Brunner in 2009 left the Crew vulnerable. Now 24, the 6-4 local kid has to have a strong season.
What He Said:
“We have to start the season on a high note because if we are winless in the first seven again, we will have trouble. We took the season too light last year. We thought we were a good team.”
--Head coach Robert Warzycha
If everything goes right:
Warzycha is no longer a rookie coach trying to fill the legendary Sigi Schmid’s shoes. He has smartly refused to tinker too much with his predecessor’s roster. Why would he? The same core has won two straight Eastern Conference championships. And if Barros Schelotto can stay healthy, a striker emerges as a legitimate scoring threat, and the defense maintains its impressive discipline, the third championship should arrive relatively handily.