The Crew's Emmanuel Ekpo (left) battles with Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave on Tuesday night in Columbus.

Gutsy CCL opener proves Crew doubters wrong

COLUMBUS – Well, well, well. We have a series.

With many prognosticating Real Salt Lake to be vastly superior to the new-look Columbus Crew in their all-MLS CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series, the scoreless first leg on Tuesday night proved one thing:

The Columbus Crew are in this with a real fighting chance to knock off the favorites.

“They are really good and pass the ball around really well,” Crew forward Emilio Renteria said. “But we also have a good chance because we have good players. They have their starting center back and starting right back suspended. We can take advantage of this to come away with a victory ourselves [in the second leg]. It’s a game that can go in any direction.”

Although the field conditions, cold weather, red cards and the heavy legs from preseason might have gone a long way in leveling the playing field, Real Salt Lake say they never underestimated Columbus, despite seemingly looking taken aback by the Crew’s strong start on Tuesday.

“I think that you don’t do yourself justice or any favors if you’re going to say, ‘On paper this or that,’” RSL manager Jason Kreis said. “For me, it’s always play on the field. The answers are always playing in between the lines within 90 minutes.”

[inline_node:329272]The departures of the old guard during the offseason were a primary reason many formulated such low expectations for Columbus. Then there were the unknown quantities – the new acquisitions – which featured prominently on Tuesday night and turned into pleasant surprises.

Funny how 90 minutes of Rich Balchan, Cole Grossman and Joshua Gardner can change perception.

But more importantly, there is a core in Columbus that is easy to lose sight of because they do not necessarily carry the presence and personality of Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll or Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Did anyone forget actually forget Rentería or Emmanuel Ekpo? How about Robbie Rogers? Eddie Gaven? When Crew technical director Brian Bliss insisted during the offseason that the club’s moves were not an extreme makeover, maybe he was right after all.

“Even though they’re without a lot of the faces that you’re used to, they still have a lot of those faces that have done well for them in the past,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said.

Added midfielder Will Johnson, “You have to remember that this was a team that won MLS Cup and won the Supporters’ Shield. Yes, they got rid of a lot of guys, but it’s still a club with a winning tradition and we’re very wary of that and we’ll be wary of that next Tuesday.”

Bliss and Warzycha have repeatedly encouraged Crew fans to see the glass half full. But without competitive matches to back their statements, no one believed them.

In the first real 90 minutes of the 2011 season, the Crew brass were momentarily vindicated.

“I think we can’t be scared to play these guys,” Warzycha said. “We showed today that we can really step up and give them a good game.”

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