OBETZ, Ohio – The Columbus Crew have shown over the past three seasons they can play attractive soccer with a possession game running through Guillermo Barros Schelotto as he takes advantage of his speedy wingers.
They can also stifle opponents with high pressure, sit back and rely – sometimes too much – on set pieces to be the difference maker.
And throughout the run to the MLS Cup victory in 2008 and the past two Supporters’ Shields, their toughness was never questioned. Teams trying to outmuscle the Crew were usually met with resistance and defeat.
That is, until last Saturday. Columbus' 3-1 loss to Los Angeles showed that if a club is allowed to physically disrupt the Crew without retribution from the players or the referee, things can go very badly very quickly for them.
[inline_node:318163]LA midfielder Dema Kovalenko put a hurting on Schelotto and the Galaxy even got the normally unflappable Eddie Gaven frustrated to the point that the showdown between the top clubs was no contest.
“Especially in the first half, I may have had objections to some of the calls, but the referee [Alex Prus] did what he did,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said.
“Look at the fouls. They had 15 fouls and we had six, and there was only one yellow card. They were stopping every time we had the momentum, but they were tactical fouls, and that is part of the game.”
Kovalenko committed four fouls, but didn’t earn either of the Galaxy’s two yellows, prompting Warzycha to say: “Kovalenko did what he's known for. He tackled everybody, he grabs everybody … the referee let him do that, and that was the difference.”
Kovalenko, for his part, explained his coverage of Schelotto simply: “I frustrated him a little bit. He doesn't like to get kicked.”
Maybe that will be the game plan against the Crew the remainder of the season, if games are called as loosely as the one on Saturday. The Crew have suffered the second-most fouls in the league this season (276), second only to Seattle (290).
Despite the uptick in physicality, Columbus veteran Frankie Hejduk said his club welcomes some rough play heading down the stretch for another postseason run.
“We like grinding, fighting and scrapping,” Hejduk said. “That's kind of the way we play.”