COLUMBUS – The Crew went into the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals Tuesday night a heavy underdog, but came away with at least a fighting chance after a scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake.
The series now turns to Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah for the finale on March 1. The Crew can only hope they can muster an even better effort in a venue where they’ve been outscored 7-1 in three defeats during the past two years.
“We can’t be scared to play those guys,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said. “We showed today we can really step up and give them a good game.”
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The Crew have undergone a massive rebuilding project after not bringing back nine of their most proven and popular players, and injuries forced several rookies into the spotlight on Tuesday.
Indiana alum Rich Balchan, the Crew’s top pick in January’s MLS SuperDraft, started in the central defense with veteran Andy Iro after regular starter Chad Marshall was hit in the head during practice Monday and and suffered “concussion symptoms,” according to Warzycha.
Balchan was slated to play defensive midfield, fellow rookie Cole Grossman got the call instead.
[inline_node:329268]“Overall the team did well,” Warzycha said. “I didn’t see anybody on the field that had a bad performance. Balchan was very good. Grossman in the middle was playing well.”
Added midfielder Eddie Gaven, “Cole played great tonight,. He was getting the ball a lot, playing it from one side to the other. It was a very good game for him. Hopefully he can build off that.”
Three-fourths of the back line was new, with Chilean Sebastian Miranda playing on the right and Josh Gardner, the former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder, adapting to his new spot on the left side for the injured Shaun Francis.
But what could have been the biggest worry actually turned out to be a non-factor.
With starting goalkeeper William Hesmer and backup Andy Gruenebaum injured, ex-FC Dallas ‘keeper Ray Burse Jr. got the start in the city where he played for Ohio State from 2002-05.
Real Salt Lake had taken only six shots, none on goal, and the biggest concern for Burse was staying warm with the temperatures in the mid-20s. On several occasions when there were stoppages at the other end, he did sprints from end line to end line of the penalty area.
“He didn’t have to do anything basically, but he looks good,” Warzycha quipped.
Perhaps the most upsetting moment for the Crew was the skirmish in the 72nd minute between RSL defender Nat Borchers and Crew forward Emilio Renteria.
Borchers said he was tossed for retaliating to a vicious elbow by Rentería, but the Venezuelan said the referee saw him push Borchers away with his hand before Borchers responded with a kick to the leg.
“I’m not one to hit central defenders,” Rentería said. “Every time I was looking for the ball he would hit me, but I’m not one to hit defenders.”
RSL also saw defender Tony Beltran red-carded in the 53rd minute for a second caution, but the Crew managed just one shot on goal the rest of the way.
“Maybe the field conditions had a little to do with our finishing, especially in the first half when we had some chances and they looked at the ball,” Warzycha said. “Playing against a team like Salt Lake, a good team the last few years, is very encouraging.”
And that’s the attitude the Crew is taking into the decisive rematch.
“We played really, really well tonight,” Gaven said. “The boys worked hard. They fought well for each other.
“It was good to come out of here with a tie tonight,” he added. “It would have been better if we could have come out of here with a win. At least we didn’t lose the game. Now we have to go there and do our work.”