Columbus Crew head coach Robert Warzycha has relied on youngsters this season to finish matches because of a depleted roster, and so far the results have been encouraging.
As the Crew completed a 2-1 victory against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, he had rookie midfielder Rich Balchan and first-year forwards Justin Meram (above) and Aaron Horton on the field.
Horton, 19, subbed for Jeff Cunningham and made his MLS debut three weeks after signing as the Crew’s first Home Grown player. Balchan has started 12 of 13 games while Meram earned his third appearance and made a major contribution off the bench for a second straight match.
He drew a penalty against Jámison Olave that led to Andrés Mendoza’s equalizer in the 76th minute.
“I kind of faked him out a little bit, beat him,” Meram said. “He got me. I’m not really a big diver. You’ll find that out. That’s not my game.”
Last Saturday at New York, his run down the left flank and pass into the box set up Balchan’s goal in stoppage time on his first career shot for a 1-1 tie.
“When you get that chance, I don’t want to look back,” Meram said. “I’m going to take it. I want to work hard when I’m out there. There’s all these veterans, when a rookie comes in, they want you to prove a lot.”
Horton was thrilled to play for the team he cheered for while growing up in suburban Columbus.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “Just getting on the field at Crew Stadium and get my first few minutes, there’s nothing better for me.”
Warzycha did not hesitate to insert Horton in the 89th minute despite the tenseness of the match.
“With his speed he could get loose and score a goal or make a goal because [RSL] were pushing for the goal,” Warzycha said.
Of course, Horton might not have dressed if not for a spate of injuries and midfielder Robbie Rogers’ continuing stint with the US national team.
Forwards Tommy Heinemann and Emilio Rentería did not play Wednesday and won’t Sunday against Chicago (4 pm ET, MatchDay Live). Left back Shaun Francis and midfielders Dilly Duka, Leandre Griffit, Cole Grossman, Bernardo Anor, Santiago Prim and Danny O’Rourke will all be unavailable through injury.
However, Mendoza might play despite fracturing his right wrist during the Real Salt Lake game. He will test his comfort level with a cast in practice on Saturday after Friday’s session was cancelled due to inclement weather.
“I play with my feet, not with my hands,” Mendoza said.
He came under intense fire Wednesday when he took the PK instead of allowing Cunningham to potentially tie the MLS career goals mark. Mendoza was also seen gesturing defiantly to the fans who booed him and to the Crew bench.
Warzycha told him Friday to knock off the antics. He likes Mendoza’s potential to score, but won’t be afraid to turn to his younger players at critical junctures.
“You have to put them in the right situation,” Warzycha said. “Obviously, they are doing well. I’m definitely happy with them.”