On Tuesday night, the Columbus Crew hoped to replicate the 2002 season, back when they started their championship run in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup with a win over Richmond.
Instead, their 2-1 loss to the Kickers of the third-tier USL Pro could pave the way for a repeat of 2008, when the Crew were unencumbered by outside competition down the stretch and won the MLS Cup.
The Crew are not in the CONCACAF Champions League as was the case the past two seasons, when the roster-strapped team struggled to the finish line. Nor will there be three more Open Cup games like in 2010, when they reached the title match in said competition.
But that was little consolation to midfielder Kevin Burns after Columbus exited in the round of 16.
“We wanted to deal with this tournament and the Champions League,” he said. “That’s why it’s so disappointing.”
The irony is MLS teams are allowed to carry six more players than last year, so the Crew would have welcomed the additional games to help develop rookies seeking meaningful action.
“Maybe not advancing is a blessing in disguise for this team, but you hate to see it for a lot of the young guys because those are minutes in a game,” midfielder Danny O’Rourke said. “They’re getting valuable experience.”
O’Rourke’s red card in the 67th minute — his first appearance since knee surgery in November — didn’t help as the Kickers scored the winner 18 minutes later. He was ejected after tangling with Ryan Heins — a call he disputed.
“I’m hoping when I get 90-minutes fit I can not only contribute on the field but as being a leader,” O’Rourke said. “That’s why I was really more frustrated with the referee’s decision there, because the young guys didn’t deserve to be a man down.”
The Crew last year played 40 competitive matches (30 MLS, six Champions League and four Open Cup games) from the start of the regular season to the end. They will have 35 this year (34 in MLS and an Open Cup game) plus a friendly vs. Newcastle United on July 26.
They also played two Champions League games in the 2010 and ‘11 preseasons.
In 2008, the Crew had 30 league games, a pair of Open Cup matches and two friendlies — none of the four “extra” games were after July 20. It might be no coincidence that a healthy and rested team lost only once in the final 15 games of the regular season and playoffs.
Although the Reserve League was reinstated after a two-year absence, Columbus’ first of their final six matches isn’t until Aug. 21, followed by a three-week break.
While true that there are an additional four league matches this year, they are not the place to develop unproven rookies or gain match fitness for injured players such as O’Rourke.
It could be a long and lost summer for some young players.