COLUMBUS – Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals match against Real Salt Lake was never meant to be a barometer of where the Crew stood after an offseason of numerous transactions.
The first leg – a scoreless draw in the Crew Stadium icebox – was another in a series of steps toward refining the club. Coach Robert Warzycha got it right when discussing his team’s fitness level.
“We are in the middle of the preseason,” he said.
The squad that took the field Tuesday will be nothing like the one for the MLS opener March 19 at D.C. United or will be playing in the middle of the summer because there’s a jelling process that comes with having 14 newcomers, including nine rookies.
Also, the Crew were without their regular goalkeepers (William Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum), top defender (Chad Marshall), best rookie last season (defender Shaun Francis) and 2009 team MVP (midfielder Danny O'Rourke).
Last year’s MVP midfielder Eddie Gaven is recovering from an ankle sprain and went 63 minutes in his longest outing of the preseason while midfielders Kevin Burns and Dilly Duka did not dress because of injuries.
“We know we have a very, very good team but we also knew we had to actually go out there and show that,” Gaven said.
[inline_node:329275]WATCH AND LEARN: Observations from a frosty night:
• Chilean Sebastian Miranda looked comfortable in his Crew debut as a replacement for right back Frankie Hejduk. Miranda showed why Warzycha likes him when he sent a pinpoint cross into the box in the third minute. Andres Mendoza half-volleyed the pass over the crossbar, which leads to…
• Mendoza and forward partner Emilio Renteria did nothing to alter the opinion that they are not good finishers and their teammates were equally inept. The Crew may have to shoot twice as much to get half as many goals.
• Rookie Rich Balchan had a strong performance working alongside Andy Iro in the central defense. He has the speed to not only cover his mistakes but provide additional support.
• Converted midfielder Josh Gardner was steady at left back. He doesn’t have the savvy of the departed Gino Padula or the pace of the injured Francis, but his many years on the left wing allow him to handle the ball cleanly and calmly as he pushes the play up field.
• First-year defensive midfielder Cole Grossman was deemed too slow to play in MLS by one observer of the team’s camp in Arizona, but he did not look overmatched. Maybe a faster surface will cause him problems down the road.
FIRST IS WORST: The Crew have now gone seven tournament/playoff series (0-3-4) without winning the first match since defeating host San Jose 2-1 in Game 1 in quarterfinals of the 2002 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Columbus have been outscored 6-3 with three 1-0 losses. They have also lost five of the six series and play at Real Salt Lake on March 1 trying to reverse the trend.
The Crew have a pair of home ties in the past two years in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals and are 0-3-2 in MLS postseason although all five times they opened on the road where they have scored only once.