OBETZ, Ohio – The Columbus Crew have filled their 30-man roster for now, thanks to the signing of Montenegrin defender Nemanja Vukovic on Wednesday.
The 27-year-old Vukovic (above, right) has played professionally in his homeland and for the past three seasons in the second division of Greece with Panaitolikos before joining the Crew for the Charleston, S.C., leg of preseason in late February and early March.
He’s expected to compete for the Crew’s top spot at left back, which has been a sore spot since they released Gino Padula after the 2010 season.
“[Vukovic] has a job to win,” Crew head coach Robert Warzycha told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “[Shaun Francis] is playing over there, so he has to be better than Frano.
“Competition is healthy. My job is to bring in players who can play for this team and put the best players on the field. It’s a situation where whoever is going to play better is going to be out there. I have some options.”
Warzycha likes Vukovic’s experience, calmness on the ball and service. At 6-foot-2, Vukovic could also be a threat out of the back on set pieces.
Francis was expected to take over the left back spot last year, but injuries limited him to six games and the Crew turned to converted midfielder Josh Gardner.
The staff was pleased with Gardner’s overall play, especially superior crosses compared to Francis, but his inexperience at the position was a concern and he was left unprotected and then selected in the Expansion Draft by Montreal.
Rookie Rich Balchan played some left back last season as well, but the job seemed to be Francis’ this year. He struggled through the preseason and veteran Carlos Mendes, acquired from New York in the offseason, was a candidate before being injured in the days prior to the season opener at Colorado on March 10.
Mendes could be available in the team’s home opener on Saturday against Montreal, but Balchan is still recovering from sports hernia surgery and is not a factor at this time.
While Vukovic’s signing means there are no current openings on the roster, the team is still pursuing striker Jairo Arrieta of Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa, although if an agreement is reached it may not come until the summer.
“We are interested in a lot of players, but Arrieta obviously is one of them,” Warzycha said.
The lone trialist remaining with the Crew is rookie forward Aaron Schonfeld from East Tennessee State, who was drafted and cut by the Impact.