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In a season filled with a cramped schedule and a host of injuries, Columbus has ascended to the top of the table by relying on its depth. Kyle McCarthy talks with Crew head coach Robert Warzycha about how this year has forced him to lean on his squad to defend the titles it won in 2008.

By Kyle McCarthy

Most MLS coaches discuss depth as if they actually have it. Ask nearly every coach in the league and he'll say he likes his squad and thinks he has enough options within it to survive despite the restrictions that make building a deep roster difficult.

The difference between the pretenders and the contenders sharpens when injuries occur and games accrue. The top teams in MLS – Chicago (during this recent stretch when it has plucked defenders out of the deep freezer and rotated others through the lineup to fill in for Brian McBride and a host of other injured players) and Houston (presumably during the CONCACAF Champions League, though recent form doesn't necessarily reflect the depth Dominic Kinnear has assembled) spring to mind immediately – paper over the cracks without taking a hit on the field. Lesser teams take on water or fade away as the adversity starts to mount.

Among all of the teams extolling the virtues of their depth, Columbus stands alone because it has proven time and again this season that it can obtain results consistently no matter who takes the field.

Sixteen Crew players have started in at least seven MLS games this season. With five MLS matches to play this season, that total already surpasses the 13 players former coach Sigi Schmid trotted out for more than seven matches in 2008. Crew coach Robert Warzycha has employed Emmanuel Ekpo (24 appearances, 19 starts, two goals, five assists), Jason Garey (12 appearances, eight starts, four goals), Andy Gruenebaum (10 starts), Steven Lenhart (21 appearances, seven starts, two goals) and Jed Zayner (15 appearances, 11 starts) far more than Schmid needed to last season.


Emmanuel Ekpo | Nigerian youth international has carved out a regular place in Robert Warzycha's lineup

“Every team is trying to build a team that's going to perform,” Warzycha said in a phone interview yesterday. “Since we were champions last year, we didn't have to make a lot of changes from last year. The one thing we did this year was rotate the players. Players that didn't play last year or had one or two games have played ten games and they contribute.”

With a spate of injuries ravaging the side and a CONCACAF Champions League-induced fixture pileup, Warzycha hardly had a choice in the matter. His reserves – including Duncan Oughton, who has chipped in with valuable minutes at a variety of spots in all competitions and who Warzycha said is “playing the best he has played for a long time” – have ensured that there wasn't much, if any drop off, when key players like Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Frankie Hejduk missed multiple games earlier this season.

“We had to change the lineup because of the schedule that we have,” Warzycha said. “We're very happy that those guys are getting some games. At a time like right now where we have plenty of games, they can step up and perform. They've had some games before, so I can make the lineup, see the guy on the field and know he's ready to play and perform.”

The performances, as of late, have more than met the required standard. Columbus has lost just two of its past 14 games in all competitions, a mark that includes a six-game winning streak at one point and a current three-match unbeaten streak ahead of tonight's visit by Cruz Azul in CONCACAF Champions League action. Given the recent run of form, Columbus looks odds on to hoist the Supporters' Shield for a second consecutive season and mount a serious bid for a MLS Cup double despite the difficulty posed by its current seven-match-in-21-days run (a run that has already included matches with Chicago and Houston and will include visits by Los Angeles and Seattle). Warzycha praised his squad for sustaining its standards despite the adverse circumstances.

“They've coped with it very well and the attitude has been very good,” Warzycha said. “They always find a way to perform well and win.”

Around The League

- There is one midweek MLS clash as San Jose and Colorado finish off their home-and-home series in Commerce City on Wednesday night (9:30p.m.). The two teams played to a 1-1 draw on Friday night at Buck Shaw Stadium.

- San Jose faces a series of injury doubts ahead of the match. Cornell Glen (knee) is out after picking up an injury in the second half on Friday night, while there are doubts about whether Arturo Alvarez (hamstring) and Shea Salinas (hamstring) will be fit enough to feature. Darren Huckerby (hip) is out for the rest of the season.


Pablo Mastroeni | Rapids captain returns for San Jose match after a three-match ban

- Colorado welcomes back Pablo Mastroeni from a three-match ban. Mastroeni should slot straight into central midfield, allowing Nick LaBrocca to slide out and fill one of the wide spots (though not as a true winger). Colin Clark (left ACL tear), Matt Pickens (knee) and Jamie Smith (knee) are sidelined, while Cory Gibbs (knee) remains doubtful.

- Ryan Johnson and Conor Casey are the only two players to have scored in this three-game series this year. Each player has a pair of goals with Johnson scoring the opener and Casey grabbing the equalizer in both previous meetings.

- One final tidbit: Colorado is 5-1-0 in its previous six matches at DSG with 11 goals scored and one goal permitted. In order to keep its playoff hopes on track, Colorado will need a similar result against the Earthquakes.

- All three MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League are back in action this week with one MLS win already on the board.

- Houston pasted Group A leaders Arabe Unido (Panama) 5-1 at a deserted and damp Robertson Stadium on Tuesday night. The Dynamo scored four times in the second half – including a double by substitute Stuart Holden – to make sure Eddie Robinson's early bit of fortune from Carlos Bejarano's blunder provided the foundation for all three points. Houston moved up to second in the group behind Pachuca after the Mexican side dismissed Metapan 4-0 in El Salvador.

- Columbus hosts Cruz Azul (Mexico) tonight (8:00p.m., Fox Soccer Channel). The Crew currently sits second in Group C after winning at Deportivo Saprissa last Wednesday and would knock Cruz Azul from top spot should it defeat the Mexican side on Wednesday night.

- “They are very talented and very technical and they possess the ball very well,” Warzycha said. “The challenge for us will be to put some pressure on them and not allow them to get some rhythm. If we allow them to get their rhythm, then they're limit us. We want the ball to play the way we want it, not the way they want it. That'll take them out of their comfort zone and allow us to win the ball in the middle of the field.”

- D.C. United faces a critical Group B clash with Marathon (Honduras) at R.F.K. Stadium on Thursday night (8:00p.m., Fox Soccer Channel). United sits three points behind Marathon and faces a must-win game in this one to stand a viable shot of progressing through to the next round.


Bryan Namoff | Steady United defender will miss Marathon match with a concussion

- United is facing ample selection issues at the back after Bryan Namoff (concussion) joined Marc Burch (ankle) and Dejan Jakovic (hernia) on the treatment table. Jakovic, however, is now listed as probable and could see time this weekend if Thursday comes too soon.

- The question facing United at this point: is it worth it to play the first-teamers in the Champions League knowing MLS playoff qualification hangs in the balance? One point in favor playing the starting XI against Marathon: United plays San Jose at home on Sunday, giving the top dogs an extra day of rest.

- Speaking of the Earthquakes, investor/operator Lew Wolff unveiled the plans for the proposed stadium at San Jose International Airport on Saturday night. Now if only the Earthquakes could find the money to build it.

- The MLS Disciplinary Committee handed down additional fines and suspensions on Tuesday. Chivas USA defender Marcelo Saragosa earned an extra one-match ban and $500 in fines (total: two games, $1,000) for his rake to Fredy Montero's face in Saturday's 0-0 draw. Houston assistant coach John Spencer picked up an additional one-match suspension and $1,000 in fines (total: two games, $1,500) for failing to leave the field in a timely manner after his dismissal in Saturday's 3-2 home win over Real Salt Lake. San Jose coach Frank Yallop earned a $750 fine for confronting the match officials after Colorado earned a stoppage-time penalty kick in Friday night's 1-1 draw.

- Chivas USA plays parent club Chivas de Guadalajara tonight in a friendly at the Rose Bowl.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page.

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