As an original MLS franchise, it stands to reason that the Crew has a good chance of seeing a former Black & Gold player wearing opposing colors in each passing match. That’s the case against Real Salt Lake this week, with both Rich Balchan and Cole Grossman returning to Crew Stadium for the first time as visitors.
This time, however, the reunion takes on an added meaning. Balchan and Grossman were each drafted by the Crew in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, joining Justin Meram and Bernardo Anor, who were also selected that year by the Crew. Columbus also signed Eric Gehrig as an undrafted free agent that year, meaning that the entire 2011 Black & Gold rookie class is set to be reunited on Wednesday evening.
It’s one thing to play against a former teammate, but it’s another to have an entire class back together. As you might expect, Meram, Anor and Gehrig are all excited to see their former co-rookies in Balchan and Grossman.
“I have great memories,” said Meram. “They’re great guys. I still talk to them once in a while. I’m excited to see them for sure.”
“It was a great class. Good players too, both of them,” added Anor. “It’s going to be fun to have them here in Columbus where they started their careers … Hopefully, both of them get to play and all three of us here get to play as well. It was fun when they were around, so now we move on and we’ll get to see them now.”
Many of the players taken in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft are no longer in the League, and as Gehrig pointed out, the fact that all five Crew rookies are in a position to be reunited on one field three years later is a testament to the ability of the players involved.
“It was a time with new faces and a new environment, an exciting time for us being new in the League and being rookies trying to make it,” said Gehrig. “I thought it was a good group. Cole and Rich have gone on to do well, and Bernardo, Justin and myself are still over here in Columbus, so I think that speaks volumes for the people that we had at that time and the group of guys that you’re talking about.”
The rookie relationship is undeniable; you never forget where you came from. As young players trying to learn the ropes together, the five came together as Crew rookies and that cordial relationship continues to this day.
“When you come to a new team, whether it be college or the pros, I think the younger guys tend to stick together and look out for each other because that’s just the way it goes,” said Gehrig. “Beyond being good soccer players, I think every one of us were good guys, and that made it easier for us to transition and stick together. I think that had a role in us making it and lasting at least three-four years in the League, hopefully beyond.”
“That bond comes back together. We came in together as a class,” added Anor. “It makes it easier. They were great people when they were here, and we had a fun time.”
Of course, once the whistle blows on Wednesday, Anor, Meram and Gehrig are set to try to earn three points for the Crew, while Balchan and Grossman will be trying to do so for RSL. The experience of playing a former teammate isn’t an uncommon one for a professional athlete, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
“I played against Dilly [Duka] with Chicago,” said Meram. “We were basically marking each other the whole game. There was a little trash talk and goofy stuff going on, but obviously the game is more important. It’s going to be exciting. I know [Balchan and Grossman] are going to try extra hard for who’s going to have the bragging rights, since we only play once per year.”