The Crew’s offseason purge of numerous veterans was somewhat offset by the retention of a core group that had been pivotal in 2008’s MLS Cup success.
But even with current Columbus players Eddie Gaven, William Hesmer, Chad Marshall, Danny O’Rourke and Robbie Rogers playing prominent roles that year, and backups Kevin Burns, Emmanuel Ekpo and Andy Gruenebaum also bearing championship rings, the team must get help from a new set of players if they are make a run at a second title.
Technical director Brian Bliss believes the team's young players need to grasp their postseason opportunity, and fast, if they are to emulate the success of three season ago.
“They’ve got to be ready to make a contribution,” said Bliss. “We’re 30 games or so into the season. It’s not, ‘Get on the field and just don’t hurt us.’ You’ve got to get on the field enough to make an impact and hold your own.”
Due to the massive makeover and six additional roster spots this season, rookies and other younger players are counted on more than in recent years and are expected to continue that trend for the last two regular-season games and possibly into the playoffs.
Last year, rookies Shaun Francis and Dilly Duka combined for 12 starts in only 15 appearances, but that was still better than the three games and one start for lone rookie Alex Grendi in 2009. The numbers jumped dramatically this season, even as the schedule was expanded by four games. Through 32 matches, six rookies have combined for 49 games (32 starts) with two goals and three assists.
“We’re starting to feel like we’re not rookies anymore,” said midfielder Cole Grossman, who’s played two games. “We have a big group of young players and all season the guys have talked about being ready whenever their numbers are called.”
Defender/midfielder Rich Balchan, a product from Indiana, has led the way with 19 games and 17 starts despite missing nearly two months due to injuries. First-year forward Justin Meram out of Michigan assisted Balchan’s stoppage-time goal Jun. 4 to salvage what now seems like a very big point at New York in the 1-1 draw.
The Crew (12-12-8, 44 points) are a single point up on the Red Bulls for the third and final Eastern Conference direct qualifying spot and a first-round bye. The youngsters will need to stay focused and sharp for their first taste of the postseason.
“These [rookies] have been very professional,” Rogers said. “They stay after and do their work, at least most of them. There might be a chance for one of them to really step up and make a difference in some of these games and the playoffs.”
In addition to Meram and Balchan, Bliss thinks Bernardo Anor might give valuable minutes off the bench Saturday at New England, especially if Rogers (hamstring) can’t play. Duka might then step into Rogers’ starting spot.
“Even though he’s been around, he’s still a young guy,” Bliss said of Duka. “He’s got to make a contribution.”
Hesmer said the playoff drive means no more on-the-job-training.
“We’ve had a lot of young guys play some important minutes and there’s got to be a time when they switch it on and say, ‘I’m not a rookie anymore. I get it.’ ”