Emmanuel Ekpo

Crew looking to add midfield depth

Columbus Crew management said that when it decided not to renew the contract of Guillermo Barros Schelotto after last season, their star forward could never be replaced. Coach Robert Warzycha has instead tweaked the system in a way that the center midfielder becomes more of a focal point in the attack.

While Schelotto was most effective dropping behind the striker, Warzycha likes to use two forwards in the box. The problem for the Crew is finding a player to fill the hole in the middle.

Emmanuel Ekpo was the choice for the two recent CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal games against Real Salt Lake but did not distinguish himself, particularly Tuesday’s 4-1 loss that eliminated the Crew. Yet Warzycha was pleased with Ekpo’s effort in marking RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman.

“His main role was to make sure Beckerman didn’t have a good game,” Warzycha said after the game. “He’s the guy who usually is directing their attack. Both games I thought Ekpo did very good. You look at the stats and [Beckerman] usually gets 60, 70 touches a game. He probably had that total in both games.”

Ekpo may not be the choice when the season starts March 19 at D.C. United. He was the center mid for the first six games in 2009, but never looked comfortable, nor was he productive. While the 23-year-old is still maturing as a player, he is not an offensive as shown by only four goals, none last season, in 69 career games.

Eddie Gaven has shown some promise in the spot; Dilly Duka, in his second season, might get a look and rookie Bernardo Anor may develop at some point, but there’s a reason Warzycha is overseas scouting talent.

Schelotto had a team-leading nine goals last year among 53 percent of the scoring (21 of 40 goals) goals did not return this season. Adding the 11 goals Jeff Cunningham scored at FC Dallas in 2010 will help, but offense has to be a concern.

When Warzycha was asked in the offseason what he wants from his center midfielder he said, “Somebody that is good on free kicks, has a good shot from distance, is a good finisher and probably the thing he needs the most is keep the team together and lift the team to win the game.”

He’s still looking.

On the pitch

Columbus resumed preseason play on Sunday with a 2-1 loss to New England on Sunday before 4,379 fans in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tom Heinemann had a late goal to half the deficit in his first game after offseason knee surgery. William Hesmer went two-thirds of the way in goal before being replaced by rookie Alex Riggs.

The same teams play Wednesday in Kennesaw, Ga.


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