COLUMBUS – After waiting so long to contribute, the feelings of cement legs and heavy breathing were welcomed by Crew rookies Dilly Duka and Shaun Francis during Tuesday’s US Open Cup match against Rochester.
Neither had appeared in any of the Crew’s 12 MLS games, but they were in the starting lineup of the third-round match won by the Crew 2-1 on a stoppage time goal by Steven Lenhart.
Francis, the 63rd of 64 players taken in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, was at left back and showed a penchant to foray into the attacking third.
He played the entire match and was gassed afterward, despite some advice.
“The coaches said it might go to overtime, so I should conserve my energy,” he said.
Duka was the eighth overall pick from Rutgers and had publicly been clamoring for a chance to play. The midfielder went 70 minutes in the start, but blew a good scoring chance in the first half with a bad touch.
“I was trying to work back defending in the middle,” he said. “We didn’t keep possession that much and I ran out of gas. A lot of guys did. First game, you know. Overall I did alright.”
“It felt good to play,” he added. “It should be a big day with your first game, but I was cool about it. I just wanted to go out there and touch the ball. It was good to be out there in a semi-meaningful game.”
For Duka, Rochester was better competition than this season’s exhibitions against college squads and Premier Development League teams.
“It’s definitely a step up because the U.S. Open Cup means something,” Duka said. “They gave us a good match, but there’s not much talent on that team. They were just a hard-working team.”
Francis, A Jamaican via Lindsey Wilson College, held his own against a Rhinos club that had several former MLS players.
“He did well,” defender Andy Iro said. “I remember being in his position. He hasn’t played a full game in a couple of months probably. It’s good to get his feet wet and understand how it is in a game. It was a good test for him.”
Duka showed some flair and at times looked like a natural fit in the offense.
“He keeps the ball so well,” Lenhart said. “He’s smooth. He has his own little style. He played confident. He created some stuff. It was a good first showing.”
Still, Duka would love to have one play back. He was unmarked approaching the penalty area in the 43rd minute when he took a cross from Emmanuel Ekpo. Duka brought the ball down then saw it run away from him.
“When I saw the ball in the air it was coming in slow motion and I’m thinking, ‘Just clean this up,’ ” he said. “It hit me, and on the first touch I saw the ball going further and further away. It could have been a nice moment, but it was a little mistake.”
The decision for more playing time for the youngsters belongs to coach Robert Warzycha, and he saw enough against Rochester to be happy with their performances.
“They’re going to continue to improve,” he said. “At some point they’re going to be on the field against MLS teams.”