OBETZ, Ohio – The Crew's depth and versatility are about to be tested in rapid order.
After playing six times in the first eight weeks, Columbus will play five games in 16 days, starting Thursday at New York, followed by a Sunday afternoon match at Kansas City. Worse, the Crew (4-0-2, 14 points) will be down three starters in the battle for the Eastern Conference lead against the Red Bulls (5-0-3, 15).
Defender Chad Marshall and midfielder Robbie Rogers will miss at least the next three matches while trying to secure spots on the 23-man US World cup roster. Their losses were expected.
Having forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto suspended for the Red Bulls match because of an elbow to the jaw of Chivas USA defender Michael Umana on Saturday was not. Schelotto leads the club with four goals after a team-high 12 in 2009.
“We’ll miss the special moments Guille provides," goalkpeer William Hesmer said, "but I think we’ll be OK.”
They might be better than OK. The Crew are 9-0 with a 20-7 goal differential in the regular season since 2008 when Schelotto doesn’t play.
“This is what a team is all about,” captain Frankie Hejduk said. “These games are a real good test and you want to play when things are against you.”
Coach Robert Warzycha hinted Wednesday that he will employ the same 4-4-1-1 formation that had Steven Lenhart playing in front of Schelotto. Warzycha could go with two strikers and use Jason Garey, Emilio Renteria or Sergio Herrera, but that appears unlikely.
“Playing on the road, I don’t know that two strikers would work," Warzycha said, "so we’ll probably go with the formation we’ve been playing with and have somebody underneath, whether it’s Jason or Lenhart."
Filling Rogers’ spot on the left flank could require several changes. Eddie Gaven might switch from the right side and Garey, Renteria or Emmanuel Ekpo could slide into Gaven’s old position.
“I’ve [played] on the right, on the left, in the middle this year,” Gaven said. “Maybe I’ll show up in one of those spots, maybe all three during the course of the next two games.”
Warzycha is blessed to have so many “utility” players. Garey can play up top or the midfield; Renteria came to the Crew last season as a striker but played extensively in the preseason and exhibitions on the right wing, and Ekpo can go on either side and has been experimented with as a forward.
Also, rookie midfielder Dilly Duka from Montville, N.J., made his first travel squad.
The middle of the pitch should remain the same, with Brian Carroll supporting Adam Moffat. But Gaven has taken over for Moffat several times this season and veteran Duncan Oughton is a capable reserve.
New dad Hejduk (daughter Cali Britt was born at 3:54 p.m. on Monday) is the anchor at right back. Central defender Eric Brunner will be paired with Andy Iro or Danny O’Rourke.
The Crew are 5-0-4 and outscored opponents 14-7 the past two years when Iro and Brunner start. If that’s the case again, then O’Rourke may get the nod at left back over Gino Padula, who has a sore knee. Hesmer had a stiff back earlier in the week but Warzycha said he will start.
“We showed last year we can win games when we put people in different positions,” Brunner said. “They’ll step up and do the job for us.”
The Crew have ties in their two road games this season and are trying to snap a 0-8-3 mark at New York since 2003. All those games were in the unfriendly confines of Giants Stadium, so the Crew will seek a fresh start in the new Red Bull Arena.
“We’re playing on grass in a great arena in probably a great atmosphere against a great team,” Hejduk said. “What more do you want?”