Believe it or not, the league’s best defense could be even stingier come Saturday now that two-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall is ready to return to the Columbus Crew after a two-month injury absence.
Coach Robert Warzycha is expected to start Marshall on Sunday at Montreal (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online) as the Crew looks to extend their 4-1-3 run. The two-time MLS Defender of the Year has not played since suffering concussion symptoms May 4 when he was struck in the face by a ball.
“The players around him will play even better,” Warzycha said. “We have to lower the shots [against] so that’s what we’re trying to do. As a group, we have to play even better.”
Although the Crew (6-5-4) are tied with Seattle and Sporting Kansas City for the league’s lowest goals against average (1.00), they have relied extensively on goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum to bail them out of trouble.
Gruenebaum is second in the league with 59 saves through 15 games. The hope is that with Marshall back, Columbus won’t have to lean so much on their goalkeeper.
“Chad brings some stability in the pack,” Warzycha said. “He also gives us another option to score goals. He’s the team captain so obviously you want him on the field.”
Josh Williams, who had no career starts before Marshall went out, replaced him at center back and was paired with second-year defender Eric Gehrig or veterans Julius James and Carlos Mendes.
For the first time since the opening game of the season, Warzycha and his staff are faced with the pleasant dilemma of having too many able bodies for the starting XI.
James and Marshall were the primary center backs last season, but James, who missed the first dozen games because of injury, is being pushed by a suddenly deep group of central defenders, although Mendes (ankle sprain) is questionable.
Marshall, the team captain, just appreciates the opportunity to keep playing the sport he loves after another struggle with concussions.
“I enjoy the competition and playing against great athletes, testing yourself,” he said. “It’s just fun to see what you’re made up of when you go against those big names in the league.”
While the center of defense welcomes back a stalwart, there are now some questions in the midfield. Milovan Mirosevic has recovered from an adductor strain and is expected to start and Dilly Duka (hamstring) has been cleared to play.
Duka will likely be on the bench, but Mirosevic could take over the attacking role that Tony Tchani has handled well in his absence. Tchani has a goal in each of the past two games and could play in the middle underneath Mirosevic.
If so, the Crew might revert to a 4-4-1-1 with Emilio Rentería the likely candidate as the solo forward.
“We are rotating players in practice for different scenarios,” Warzycha said. “It’s a good problem to have some options.”