Erig Gehrig and Julius James

Winning culture helps Crew rookies adjust to MLS

The Columbus Crew’s 2011 regular-season record won’t reach the level of the recent past, but they’ve made the playoffs a fourth straight year. It’s a big accomplishment for a side that was revamped during the offseason, and in part it’s due to the culture of winning that has been thrust upon the cadre of young newcomers who’ve had crucial roles all year.

“You have no choice but to fall in,” defender Julius James said. “Guys who don’t fall in fall by the side because everybody is going in one direction.”

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The Crew (13-12-8, 47 points) can equal last year’s point total with a win in the season finale Saturday at Chicago, albeit in 34 games instead of 30.

It’s not quite the standard set by the MLS Cup champions in 2008, the second straight Supporters’ Shield winners of 2009 and a 14-8-8 mark last season, but none of those teams underwent a massive overhaul prior to the season.

“Transitioning into the program, there’s always going to be some pressure,” rookie midfielder Eric Gehrig said. “You realize that they gave up a lot of great guys to bring in a lot of good guys.

“The older guys did a great job leading by example. We saw why this is one of the better teams historically. Guys don’t cut corners. They do things the right way. That translates on the field.”

Stalwarts such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Gino Padula and Steven Lenhart were replaced by first-year players such as Justin Meram, Rich Balchan and Bernardo Anor.

“I’m really proud of the rookies, how hard they work,” James said. “They are very talented. This is my fourth team; of all the teams I’ve been with I’ve never seen a rookie class this big that is this good.”

Developing a winning feeling among the youngsters extends beyond the first team. The reserves’ 8-1-0 record ties them with Seattle for the best in the league.

“Our results are speaking for themselves,” Crew technical director Brian Bliss said of the reserves. “Also, the way we’re playing is a good benchmark to say we’ve got some guys in our stall that have done well, are good players and probably will be good players in our league.”

Goalkeeper William Hesmer said the rookies have made an impact but that older players must stay vigilant in protecting their “product” – a successful franchise.

“We have some young guys who still don’t get it, but the quicker the veteran guys can make them switch on and be responsible in the field – there’s no doubting their talent – but the responsibility level has to reach a new level now,” he said.

Maintaining a winning program has been gratifying for the Crew because of the manner that it’s being done.

“We’re not Man. United,” midfielder Kevin Burns said. “We’re not going out and buying top players who are producing. We have to produce from within the club.”