As it turned out, the Crew had more than home field going for them when the two-time defending Supporters’ Shield winners opened the season Saturday against Toronto FC with a 2-0 victory [CLICK HERE TO WATCH HIGHLIGHTS].
To hear the Crew players talk afterward one would have thought that they, not Toluca, had advanced out of their recent Champions League quarterfinal series.
Apparently, there are moral victories to be extrapolated from a home draw and a 3-2 defeat on Mexican soil for the Crew.
“It definitely helps anytime you can start before the (MLS) season with some meaningful games that are going to challenge you in the way those games are going to challenge you,” goalkeeper William Hesmer said. “You get that experience, you gain that confidence that I think we gained in those two games.”
He has a point, as did forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
“We had two very hard games with Toluca. Maybe that put us in a good position,” Schelotto said.
Losing any games is tough for an organization that mostly won in 2008-09, but giving a decent Mexican Primera Division side a battle for 180 minutes strengthened the Crew and allowed coach Robert Warzycha to forego any experimentation for the league opener.
For example, he knew—based on the pace of the Toluca series and the Crew’s training—that new forward Sergio Herrera is nowhere near ready to contribute.
Warzycha also saw that central midfielder Adam Moffat has put his injuries behind him, for now, and that defender Danny O’Rourke (no goals in 130 MLS matches) actually knows where the final third is and is not afraid to go there occasionally.
O’Rourke replaced Gino Padula in Toluca and set up the second goal with a confident run down the left side that enabled him to deliver a pass from the end line. Steven Lenhart headed the ball off the post and Schelotto put in the rebound.
Padula was on the bench again Saturday, and O’Rourke had another foray to the box that resulted in a goal by Schelotto to complement defender Andy Iro’s earlier score.
“We played two really, really good games against Toluca,” Iro said. “The guys are really confident. We know how we want to play. We know what we want to accomplish this season.”
As much as the Crew is championing the Champions League experience, that praise could turn cursive by the end of the season when they are forced to play six group-stage games in two months for the 2010 tournament.
DEUCES WILD: The Crew are kicking themselves—or, in the case of Lenhart, probably a defender—for only scoring a pair against TFC despite numerous quality chances.
Yet the team is off to a much better start than last season when it had a single score in each of the first five games to go 0-2-3.
The Crew were 9-0-2 in the 2009 regular season when scoring twice or more. Of course, it lost 3-2 to Real Salt Lake in the second game of the conference semifinals, but that was a different animal because even with the score tied at 2-2, the Crew trailed the aggregate series by a goal.
IDLE TIME: The Crew would love to bank their two bye weeks in April for when they could really use the rest later in the season, but this weekend was left open in case the Crew was in the semifinals of the Champions League, which features games on Tuesday and April 7.
Having just two games in four weeks presents problems for Warzycha that a lot of coaches would like. Most would spend the time tinkering with the starting lineup and trying to find the right chemistry.
Warzycha, however, has to figure how to keep a deep roster active. For example, if Padula—who entered in the 89th minute Saturday—doesn’t start the next match at FC Dallas on April 10, the regular left back for the past two seasons won’t get another chance until April 24 vs. Real Salt Lake.
To keep the players somewhat game-ready, the Crew will play exhibitions at Crew Stadium on Friday against Marshall at 10 a.m. and Michigan State at noon. The games are free and open to the public.