Monday, May 26, 2008

A View From the Other Side: RSL –vs- Columbus Crew

Real Salt Lake versus Columbus Crew
from the perspective of Doug (aka Minnman on Big Soccer)

Well, it had to happen eventually. It was inevitable that the Columbus Crew’s soaring start to the 2008 MLS season would return to earth at some point. That point was Saturday night, when Columbus coughed up a late game PK/rebound goal to Eastern Conference foe New England. Woulda, coulda, shoulda ... in the end, this “6 pointer” contest went the wrong way for the Crew, which now sits deadlocked with the Revs and Chicago Fire at the top of the table. But, this week, there’s little time for after-the-fact analysis; the standard week-long prep cycle for the next game has been abbreviated to make room for a U.S. Open Cup match vs. Real Salt Lake on Tuesday.

Now, it’s a well-known fact among MLS supporters that, when it comes to the USOC, some clubs seem to care more than others. For some franchises, it’s a chance to rest the regulars and roll out the reserve side, at least in the early rounds. Those teams don’t tend to get very far in the competition. Other clubs put in a bit more effort, seeing the USOC as a piece of hardware that slowly, but surely, is growing in prestige. Crew fans are quick to point out that, despite our club’s undeniably mediocre history, we actually did win the USOC in 2002 (We won the unfortunately-named and perpetually-unloved Supporters’ Shield in 2004, too. It was last seen being presented to a rather matronly “supporter” at halftime of a Crew match the following season; a person no die-hard Crew supporter seems to have ever laid eyes on before). I can’t say for sure just how seriously Sigi Schmid and the Crew will take Tuesday night’s USOC match vs. RSL, but I’d tend to think the answer to that question is, “pretty seriously.” In this column, I’ll provide one fan’s opinions as to why that might be, and what you might see on Tuesday from the team wearing the banana kit.

First, “What’s up with the Crew this season?” you may be asking yourself. Good question, but there are some logical answers. No, absolutely no one in Crewville saw this coming. But, in hindsight, there is a logic to how well the team’s performed this year. For me, it breaks down this way:

Young emerging talent: Moffat and Rogers, say no more. Scotsman Adam Moffat was playing USL 2nd division soccer with the Cleveland City Stars a year ago. Now, he’s an MLS developmental player holding down a keystone role in the Crew’s central midfield. And Robbie Rogers, with his combination of speed, technical ability and aggressiveness making runs off the ball, has blossomed into the Crew’s prime scoring threat; left off the US Olympic qualifying team, he’s recently been named to the full US National Team player pool.

Come-back kids: A year ago Chad Marshall started out well (after a very disappointing sophomore season in MLS) but ended up missing a large chunk of the season due to complications related to recurring concussions. At season’s end, there seemed some question as to whether Marshall’s career might be cut short because of this problem. Not to worry, Crew fans; Marshall’s been rock solid running the Crew defense (“stud” being the term most often used in reference to his play) this season, playing with a confidence and sense of calm that should (if he’s smart) be drawing Bob Bradley’s attention. And what can you say about Frankie Hejduk? As I type this, Frankie’s jetting his way across the Atlantic, on his way to join the US National Team for its friendly this week vs. England. Frankie, too, was hurt much of last year. But he’s back now, and performing better than ever.

Chemistry & Competition: This is a tight team. They work for one another, play for one another. They believe in their coach, and work for 90 minutes. This is perhaps best personified by the non-stop work ethic of guys like Alejandro Moreno and Brian Carroll. There’s little flash in players like that, but you never find yourself worrying about their commitment, either. Then, too, there are MLS-quality players pushing many of our Starting XI for playing time, and that simply hasn’t been the way things have usually been for this club. While O’Rourke’s been moved back to central defense from the midfield, and has been doing a passable job, first round draft pick Andy Iro is someone many Crew fans want to see more of. Emmanual Ekpo came into the match for Eddie Gaven at San Jose and totally changed the complexion of the game; in 10 minutes the Crew scored 3 goals (the first off of a stunning pass from Ekpo to Rogers). Guillermo So is a promising Brazilian striker the Crew signed in the off season. It’s nice to have options.

Luck: Okay, it ran a bit dry on Saturday, but all in all, the Crew’s been a pretty fortunate team this year. We’ve been more-or-less healthy, though a bit less-so recently. We’ve finished many of our chances. We’ve gotten bounces that, a year ago, ended up in our own net. They say you make your own luck, and that’s true to a point. But even our recent rash of injuries can’t be seen as all bad: none have been to irreplaceable players; none have been long-term; and they’ve inadvertently afforded some new talent an opportunity to play, experience that may prove valuable later on in the season.

Great, but what’s going to happen on Tuesday? Seriously, I have no idea. Yes, this game matters to the Crew. Sigi’s talked a lot this year about making Crew Stadium a “fortress.” Being that the club just gave up three points at home, one has to think that he’ll very much want to start a new home winning streak on Tuesday. Post-game quotes from players and coaches on Saturday mentioned that the USOC game was coming up Tuesday and the team needed to re-focus on that challenge. But there are a lot of quirky roster variables that won’t clarify themselves until we hear the Crew’s Starting XI announced 48 hours from now.

First, as I said, Hejduk’s gone until week’s end, and as Frankie’s played every minute of every game this season, goodness knows who will slot in at right back. Yeah, someone will play there, but make no mistake, the Crew doesn’t have a replacement for Frankie Hejduk. On a brighter note, one can hope that Tuesday will see the return of Gino Padula at left back and Adam Moffat in midfield. Moffat made the subs bench on Saturday, but did not play. Argentine left back Padula signed with the Crew in late March, and only played three games before tweaking a knee. Those two guys have been sorely missed the past few games.

The next question, then, is which of our regular starters might get a rest. And here the two obvious candidates are Schelotto and Moreno. Trouble is, we’ve picked up injuries to Nico Hernandez and Guillermo So, two potential offensive subs, and utility player Stephani Miglioranzi has just gone on the six week injured reserve list.

The bulk of the Crew’s offense this season has come from Schelotto, Moreno and Rogers, and it’s come out of a very non-symetrical attack (heavily tilted to our left side). The team’s lined up with four in the back with Carroll at d-mid all season long. Rogers is a lock at left attacking mid; take him out and our offense would pretty much cease to exist. But after that things get iffy in the midfield. On the right, Eddie Gaven’s started every match this season, logging over 700 minutes of playing time, but with only one assist (and zero goals) to show for his efforts (by comparison, Rogers has five goals, and 2.5-3 times the number of shots and shots on goal Gaven has managed). That lack of offensive production has many Crew fans wondering why Sigi keeps trotting “Shaggy” (though, evidently, Gaven found a barber this past week) out there week in, week out, especially with a tempting replacement in Nigerian U-23er Emmanuel Ekpo waiting in the wings. Personally, I’ve got to think that if Ekpo’s ever going to get a start in the near future, it’ll be on Tuesday.

That last central midfield slot has been the key for Columbus all season. And Adam Moffat has shown himself the only player consistently able to make an impact in that role. Listed as “probable” on Saturday, I’d be shocked (and depressed) if Moffat didn’t play vs. RSL. This season, Moffat’s been effective linking up with the attack, and getting back to defend. He’s scored a couple of timely goals, and arguably possesses the team’s best long-range shot. Mostly, though, he just seems to belong out there, working, finding a way to contribute. Sometimes you don’t know the true nature of what you have until it’s gone, and that’s been the case these past few games without Moffat in the middle.

Normally, I’d expect Sigi to consider giving guys like Moreno and Schelotto a rest on Tuesday. Moreno’s job, basically, is to sacrifice himself up top, alone, for 90 minutes each week, squeezing out a couple of scoring chances and dishing the ball off to Rogers. All for the greater glory of the Columbus Crew; I’m sure his body could use the night off. And Schelotto, though a vital cog in the offense, isn’t the youngest guy on the roster. But with potential under-studies Hernandez and So showing up on the injured list this past week, all bets are off.

So, like I said, I really don’t know what line-up Sigi Schmid will roll out on Tuesday. But I do feel that, all things considered, this game really does matter to the Crew: they’ll want to start a new winning streak at home; they’ve shown a previous commitment to this competition, one bearing the name of late Crew owner Lamar Hunt; and (not to be mean to the hosts of this RSL blog), they’re playing a bottom feeder club from the weak Western Conference, a club geared to playing on one of the crappiest pitches in MLS (incidentally, congrats on the new stadium; it can’t get finished a moment too soon). This is a match the Crew should win, and I think they’ll approach it from that perspective. Here’s my guess at Sigi’s Starting XI on Tuesday:


Zayner Marshall O’Rourke Padula


Ekpo Moffatt Rogers



In Sunday’s reserve match vs. the Revs, Moffat, Zayner and Ekpo all started, but were subbed out by the 2nd half (so they should be rested). If Padula can play left back (he didn’t play in the reserve match), my guess is that it’ll be between Zayner and Ezra Hendrickson to take Frankie’s spot at right back. Here’s hoping we’ve seen the last of EZ at wide back for a long while. As far as possible offensive subs for Schelotto and Moreno...ah, well... From a Crew fan’s perspective, hopefully we’ll see the above line-up, and that the Crew can knock in a couple of goals, giving Sigi a chance the sub out Schelotto and Moreno (for Evans? Garey? Gaven? Hernandez?) so they don’t have to go 90 minutes.