The Massive look to cement themselves as one of the league's top teams after an MLS Cup and two Supporters’ Shields in the past two seasons.
With consistent play and successful seasons in 2008 and 2009, the Columbus Crew deserve mention as one of the best teams in the nation. Now, the Crew will look to build upon these performances and secure their position in the history books of US soccer. There are some obstacles that stand in their way. The team will have to fend off challenges from improved Eastern Conference rivals as well as strong teams in the West, as the league is probably as balanced as it ever has been. Internally, questions about team chemistry during last season's closing run and problems with injury could make Robert Warzycha’s job that much harder.
Still, the potential is there and fans in the Nordecke will certainly be expecting big things. The team has gotten better since last season, with no major losses, Sergio Herrera replacing Alejandro Moreno at forward, and new, young talents coming through in the draft. If Herrera puts on his goalscoring boots and the service remains consistent, the Crew will score many goals. Chad Marshall, Frankie Hejduk, and Will Hesmer will look to lead a back line that has been one of the more consistent in MLS. Should all of these elements click, the Crew will be in contention another year.
After a dominant 2008 season, the Crew had to look forward to 2009 without Sigi Schmid, the man who had led them to both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup that season. With longtime player, then assistant Robert Warzycha waiting in the wings to take over, the transition was expected to be smooth. However, the Crew were not to win until May, giving up late leads at home, suffering defeats on the road against Western Conference opposition, and raising questions about Warzycha’s readiness to handle the job.
A 3-2 win at home against Kansas City proved a turning point in the season as the team went undefeated in thirteen out of fifteen league games, putting them right back into playoff contention. Even a penalty loss at the hands of USL-1 side Rochester in the US Open Cup was not enough to stop Columbus. Despite some slip ups, with losses in three of their four final games, the Crew were able to clinch their second consecutive Supporters’ Shield, edging out Los Angeles, Houston, and the upstart Seattle Sounders.
Despite poor form in the end of the regular season, the Crew had high hopes for the playoffs. An MLS Cup repeat was not in the cards though, as the Crew conceded a late goal to Real Salt Lake in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals to go 1-0 down. In the second leg at Crew Stadium, everything looked to be working out, with Guillermo Barros Schelotto putting the Crew 2-0 up. After that, the Crew collapsed, conceding two goals just before halftime and the inevitable third fifteen minutes from time, capping a meek performance against a team that had barely squeaked into the playoffs, but would go on to win it all.
Due to the success of 2008, the Crew qualified for its first ever CONCACAF Champions League, with the group stage starting in the second half of 2009. The Crew were placed in a very difficult group with the runners-up and semifinalists of the previous edition, Cruz Azul and Puerto Rico Islanders, respectively, as well as Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa. Despite two tough defeats against Cruz Azul, an important away win against Saprissa, coupled with a 2-0 home win against Puerto Rico and two draws, was enough to see the Crew through to the knockout round and lessen the blow of early elimination from the playoffs. There, the team put up a strong fight against Mexican outfit Toluca, but eventually lost out 5-4 on aggregate, drawing 2-2 at home and losing 3-2 away.
Alejandro Moreno - The Venezuelan striker, a fixture in the Crew squad for three years, was left unprotected in the 2009 Expansion Draft and picked up by Philadelphia. Moreno scored some important goals for the Crew, but his form dropped off towards the end of 2009, which prompted the Warzycha and Co. to look for new striking options.
Sergio Herrera - The Crew loaned the nomadic striker for the season from Colombian outfit Deportivo Cali in order to compensate for the departure of Alejandro Moreno. He brings with him four goals in 11 appearances for the Colombian national team and a wealth of experienced garnered from time spent in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia. He is a very athletic player, but also has a nose for goal, and many fans will be hoping his goals and lead the team to success this season.
Dilaver "Dilly" Duka - An attacking midfielder hailed by many as a potential replacement for Schelotto, selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2010 MLS Superdraft. Hopes are high for Duka, a 2008 All-Big East selection with Rutgers and a important fixture in the most recent US under 20 national side. With the ability to play across the midfield and some smooth ball skills, the youngster will be looking to learn as much as possible from his Argentine counterpart, sixteen years his senior and pick up some of the slack should questions about the veteran's fitness go unanswered.
Bright Dike - Forecasted by many to be a lower round pick, the Crew went ahead and picked this big striker with the twelfth overall pick in the draft. With an immense physical presence and drawing comparisons to Jozy Altidore, Dike is the kind of striker that Warzycha likes, and although he probably won't be a starter right away, he will likely see some time off the bench as the Crew such for goals. Played at Notre Dame in college and named 2009 Big East Offensive Player of the Year.
Kwaku Myamekye - A powerful Swiss central defender who played college ball for Harvard, picked in the fourth round of the Superdraft. Unlikely to see much first team action, but he does occupy an international slot, meaning the management has a plan for him.
Othaniel Yanez - Midfielder with good passing and ability and a decent first touch, picked in the fourth round of the Superdraft. Played for Louisville in college, earning third-team all-Big East honors in 2007. Again, he is unlikely to see much first team action.
Shaun Francis - A left back and another fourth rounder, once more unlikely to see much first team action this season.
Will Hesmer (GK) - Hesmer enters the season a lock for the starting shirt, though he will most likely have to match, if not exceed, his nine shutouts from last season if the Crew are to be considered contenders.
Frankie Hejduk (DR) - The captain and USA regular will most likely be first choice at right back entering his eighth season with the Crew, though Warzycha has also been using Danny O'Rourke in his position in the preseason.
Chad Marshall (DC) - Missed the Champions League matches with Toluca with a hamstring injury, but the 2009 MLS Defender of the Year should be back early in the season to anchor the Crew defense.
Eric Brunner (DC) - One of many possible partners to Chad Marshall in defense, Brunner looks to have that spot secure for now, having started 23 matches last season and playing in the Champions League against Toluca.
Gino Padula (DL) - The Argentine veteran has a lock on the left back position and can provide good service as well as stalwart defense up and down the flanks.
Adam Moffat (DM) - The Scottish central midfielder can play some up and down the pitch, but will asked this season to provide some steel to the midfield and protect the defense. Brian Carroll will be eager to fight for this spot, so Moffat will need to be at the top of his game.
Eddie Gaven (RM) - Gaven enters his fifth season as a starter with the Crew and will be looking to hold on to his place in the first team by continuing to mature as a player. Gaven will be responsible for both providing the forwards with service as well as tracking back on the right flank.
Robbie Rogers (LM) - The young winger has shown flashes of brilliance, but has also been criticized for inconsistency. He will look to prove that he can be a top-end MLS player and earn a rumored move back to Holland by improving his touch and showing more incisive play on the left flank.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto (AM) - The talismanic Argentine returns, having signed a one year contract with an option for a second back in January. He has been instrumental to the team's success in the past two years and will look to answer questions about his fitness and age (37 in May) with more inspired performances.
Sergio Herrera (FW) - There has been much expectation laid at the feet of the Colombian. He is not only athletic, but has good vision and a good touch. He will not only be responsible for scoring goals, but also to use his vision to bring others into the attack. Could work well with Schelotto.
Steven Lenhart (FW) - The tall striker, now in his third MLS season will look to secure a spot in the starting XI after seeing more playing time in the 2009 season and scoring both goals in the recent 2-2 home draw against Toluca. He will be employed mostly as a target striker, capable of both link-up play and providing a physical presence in the box.
Best of the Rest
Danny O’Rourke (DR/DC) – A versatile player that can plug most holes in the Crew backline, but does not particularly excel at one positions
Brian Carroll (DM) – A solid defensive midfielder with international experience, Carroll will certainly challenge Moffat for a starting spot. He may even partner Moffat should Warzycha opt for a more defensive outlook.
Emmanuel Ekpo (MR) – The pacy Nigerian will be pushing Rogers and Gaven for a spot in the first team and in the meantime will be looking to play effectively off the bench.
Dilly Duka (AM) – There has been much speculation about this young talent. He is seen by some as the ideal replacement for Schelotto but also may not be ready for an extended run in the first team.
Bright Dike (FW) – Perhaps a bit more raw than some of the other players in his position, Dike offers the option of a powerful striker up front should Warzycha opt for that. May not be ready for first team play right away, but expect to see him more as the season moves on.
Where will the goals come from?
With the midfield probably Columbus' strongest and deepest position, one key for the team's success this season is the ability for the strikers to convert chances. Herrera was brought in for that purpose, but if he suffers a lack of form or an injury, then what? Steven Lenhart has showed that he is starting to mature while Emilio Rentería and Jason Garey will be eager to show that they can warrant first team spots, but it is hard to imagine any of them could be a consistent source of goals. The attacking midfielders can relieve some of the pressure, but in order to be a championship team, Columbus will have to get goals out of all their strikers.
Can there be a Supporters’ Shield three-peat?
In the trophy some fans consider the true measure of a team’s ability, Columbus have a chance at an unprecedented victory. Lifting the Supporters’ Shield for the third time in a row this season would be an unprecedented feat and would also tie the Crew with D.C. United for most Shields won. Although the Crew are expected to make the playoffs this season (which they should easily accomplish), they will need to remain injury-free and consistent in every position to win the Supporters’ Shield. Even then, many fans will be demanding an MLS Cup, which is still considered the premier trophy in US soccer, and another Supporters’ Shield coupled with an early playoff exit might not sit well with fans in the Nordecke.
There is no doubt that Rogers is a very talented individual, but the precocious winger has been plagued by inconsistency after a largely successful 2009 season. Despite rumors of a possible move back to Holland, Rogers has raised some doubts with his performances as of late. Nonetheless, he could be instrumental in providing the service Columbus need to win games, especially if Schelotto's fitness starts to decline and Duka is not ready to take over the mantle.
The season looks like it could be another successful one for the Crew, having not made any drastic cuts to a solid squad, extending the contracts of key players such as Schelotto and Hesmer, and signing some talented youngsters from the draft. If Robert Warzycha can keep the team organized and consistent, there is no reason they cannot win a third straight Supporters’ Shield and contend for the MLS Cup. Should the team suffer a dip in form or a spate of injuries though, the 2010 season could be a disappointing one for the Massive.
Did you know?
Guillermo Barros Schelotto is not the only Crew player to have won a continental championship during his career. Sergio Herrera was part of the Al-Ittihad side from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that won the 2005 AFC Champions League. Herrera also has three domestic titles from Colombia and one from Saudi Arabia to his name.
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