FOX Soccer Exclusive
Columbus Crew's title prospects slim after squad overhaul
As the Columbus Crew stood on the podium accepting the 2008 MLS Cup title it had just won, you couldn’t help but get the feeling the team Sigi Schmid built could go on to win a few more trophies.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Schmid left the Crew for the Seattle Sounders just weeks later and now, after two straight first-round playoff exits, Columbus has just undergone one of the most dramatic roster overhauls you’ll ever see a playoff team undergo.
Former MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto? Gone. Long-time captain and defensive leader Frankie Hejduk? Off to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Fiesty central midfield stalwart Brian Carroll? Traded to Philadelphia. Promising veteran forward Steven Lenhart? Sent to San Jose. Head coach Robert Warzycha dumbed a boatload of key players with an eye toward getting younger, but in the process he's been left with a weakened roster with an uncertain future.
Extreme Makeover: Columbus Crew Edition has been in full swing for most of the winter, and while the Crew will try to stay away from that dirty word - rebuilding - there is no denying that the current assemblage of talent looks more destined to fight for its playoff lives than return to that trophy stage in November.
What Columbus has at the moment is a nice collection of complementary parts, but no stars or real leaders. The Crew did nothing, at least haven’t done anything as we stand two weeks from the season, to replace Schelotto’s playmaking and goal scoring.
Columbus is also facing a very scary proposition in its defense. The Crew parted ways with Gino Padula and Hejduk, while also losing versatile defender Eric Brunner in the expansion draft. Columbus figured to lean heavily on standout centerback Chad Marshall, who is one of the best defenders in MLS when healthy.
The problem with Marshall is that he’s struggled to stay healthy, with concussions having sidelined him repeatedly. He missed the Crew’s recent CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series loss to Real Salt Lake with another recent head injury, leaving his status for the start of the season, and beyond, in doubt.
Offensively, Warzycha put his "Get Younger" off-season mantra off long enough to sign former Crew standout and MLS career goals co-leader Jeff Cunningham. The speedy former Golden Boot winner can provide goals, but he’s also shown a history of struggling badly on bad teams, and with no true playmakers in the Columbus midfield, Cunningham could be in for one of his trademark down years.
MLS: June 23-25
|Thursday, June 23|
|Saturday, June 25|
|San Jose||0-0||LA Galaxy||Recap|
|Real Salt Lake||3-1||Toronto||Recap|
|Sunday, June 26|
|MLS Scores | Table | Fixtures|
Columbus will look to Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers to provide some creativity, while hoping young central midfielder Dilly Duka is ready to contribute significant minutes. Gaven is one of the league’s most underrated players, and is coming off a strong season, but he’s more of a complementary player than an orchestrator. In 2011, the Crew will need him to do much more.
As much as it is a rebuilding year, Columbus fans do have something to look forward to. The club has stockpiled a good collection of young talent that could form the nucleus for a revitalized team in 2012. Duka has the talent to be a future star, while rookies Rich Balchan, Cole Grossman, Korey Veeder and Justin Meram could all see significant playing time this season.
The real pressure is on Warzycha, who enters his third season in charge, and while the team is certainly young, he’ll still be expected to guide it to the playoffs. The Crew showed in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, at least in the first leg 0-0 draw to Real Salt Lake, that it can be a hard-working team and difficult opponent to break down. On a team lacking star power and depth, that may be the best the 2011 Crew can hope to be.
KEY LOSSES: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Eric Brunner, Gino Padula, Adam Moffatt
NEW ARRIVALS: Jeff Cunningham, Sebastian Miranda, Korey Veeder, Rich Balchan, Josh Gardner, Cole Grossman, Justin Meram.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Who will be the team’s lead playmaker? Guillermo Barros Schelotto was a master at not only beating defenses on his own, but also creating chances for his teammates, be it with pin-point passes or stellar set pieces. With Schelotto gone, the Crew offense will be in dire need of creativity. Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers and even youngster Dilly Duka will be called on to help fill the playmaking void.
X-FACTOR: Dilly Duka. The former U.S. Under-20 standout played in just three matches in 2010, but he’s seen as a key cog in the rebuilding process and stands a good chance of being thrown into the fire early despite being just 21 and still relatively inexperienced. His vision and touch are sharp, and he could develop into the playmaker Columbus needs to avoid tumbling down the Eastern Conference standings.
OUTLOOK: Unless the Crew pull off some major signings in the next two weeks, or in the summer, Columbus looks destined to be battling for its playoff life, if it doesn’t fall out of the playoff picture completely. If Chad Marshall can stay healthy, a playmaker can emerge and Cunningham can recapture his 2009 Golden Boot-winning form, the Crew can still be a tough team in the East. If those things fail to happen, it’s going to be a long year in Columbus.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.