Thursday, August 21, 2008

A View From the Other Side: RSL vs Columbus Crew

A View From the Other Side
Real Salt Lake -vs- Columbus Crew
August 23, 2008
Courtesy of Doug, aka Minnman

If you’re at all like me, you have something of a love/hate relationship with MLS. Well, perhaps not love/hate exactly; more like love/chronic-low-level-disappointment. I really do love the league, love what’s it’s done for soccer in the US, the national team, etc. And the league has come a long way in its 13 seasons. Still, with so much world-class soccer on TV nowadays, we know how much better MLS could be, if only... If only what, I’m not sure. Even if none of us have access to MLS’ monthly bank statements, we know the league’s not a profitable enterprise. We know there are still clubs that struggle under disadvantageous stadium arrangements, that TV ratings are modest, attendance rising, but nothing spectacular. We know we can’t afford top talent. So, this past week, I’ve been trying to come up with an analogy that may be of some use to the Average MLS Fan. And the best I can conjure up is AAA baseball, where there are some very good players...who are always being snapped up by their MLB parent clubs. Players come and go, and the better they are, the more likely they’ll move on the greener playing fields.

Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, and a little patronizing to MLS, I know. But my point is that the Average MLS Fan simply has to expect and accept a certain amount of flux in his/her favorite club’s roster. While Chelsea or ManU might start each season with an embarrassment of top-flight players, MLS clubs will always have gaps; new discovery players and trialists arrive, and most don’t stick, shallow or imbalanced rosters will convert contenders to also-rans after a few key injuries. And a great many teams will evolve – some by design, others fate – considerably throughout the course of one season. If you can bring yourself to accept that fact, then that seasonal team-by-team evolution is actually one of the things that makes MLS so much fun to watch. If there’s any truth to this description, then what you’ll see in Saturday’s RSL-Crew match is what I call Version 3.0 of the 2008 Columbus Crew. Fortunately for RSL fans, you’ve been witness to all three incarnations of the Crew this season. Let’s re-cap:

When the v1.0 Crew hosted RSL in an early-season USOC match, they were feeling pretty good about themselves, having recently captured the league’s much-coveted “Best of April” award. But that non-conference victory only served to momentarily mask the club’s already-flagging form. Columbus was in the middle of a four match scoreless streak. And when v2.0 visited Rice-Eccles in mid-July, Columbus turned in a toothless performance, falling to RSL 2-0. Teams had adjusted to our playing style, a few players were out with injuries, their replacements didn’t seem up to par. In short, we were playing very poorly. Thing is, all the Crew fans in Crewville, the tall and the small, expect far greater things of v3.0 Columbus on Saturday, just six weeks after we laid an egg in Utah. Why?

Well, it goes back to that “some by design, others fate” line. The Crew have had some bad luck this season, but you have to hand it to Sigi Schmid. The successes the team’s enjoyed this season haven’t been due to mere reversal of fortune. Sigi’s mostly under-the-radar approach to building the 2008 roster has been little short of masterful. He’s bought, and bought wisely. He’s created a locker room with no hint whatsoever of discord. He’s mixed experience with a ton of promising youth, so that the Crew have a solid foundation – and no real cap space issues – upon which to build for future seasons. He’s stuck with players, instead of yanking them after a poor performance (or 3), so that non- or only sometimes-starters like Andy Iro, Jed Zayner, Stephani Miglioranzi, Steve Lenhard and Ryan Junge have all seen substantial playing time and will be ready to contribute if necessary as the season winds down. As hard as it is to admit, his faith in fan non-favorite Brad Evans is even beginning to pay dividends. Off the pitch, he’s made solid decisions as well: Brian Bliss, the club’s first ever Technical Director, oversees player development and scouting; Strength and Fitness Coach Steve Tashjian and Trainer Jason Mathews are being credited with slashing the average number of players on the Crew’s injured list this week. What it all boils down to is that the Crew, 2/3 of the way through the 2008 season, is almost fully healthy, and boasts a deeper roster than at any time this season. Hell, when Brian Carroll wins the Goal of the Week award, you know you’re doing something right.

There will be an absence or two on Saturday. Emmanuel Ekpo is away playing for the gold medal with Nigeria’s Olympic team. And three other Crew players, including two starters (Frankie Hejduk and Alejandro Moreno), are away on national team duty. Expect all potential starters, except Ekpo, to be in Columbus on Saturday, however. Which means the Crew’s starting XI should look something like this:
Hejduk Marshall O’Rourke Padula
Gaven Evans Rogers

A bit of guesswork there. Pat Noonan may well start...somewhere in midfield. But Brad Evans’ strong performance last week makes it less likely that Sigi will try out Noonan in that central position. Noonan started on the left last week. Robbie Rogers is all but certain to be in that position come Saturday, however. Eddie Gaven’s not assured of a starting position. But Sigi’s not one for tweaking the line-up after a successful outing. My guess is that Noonan (who’s not quite match fit) will start on the subs bench. Once Ekpo returns, competition’s going to be fierce for starting positions in the Crew midfield.

After last Saturday’s come-from-behind victory over FCD on Fox Soccer, Chris Sullivan fielded a question about whether the Crew are serious contenders for winning the MLS Cup, because there does seem to be a nagging unwillingness to admit that Columbus may be that good. To go back to where I started, there are no top-to-bottom solid teams in MLS; yes, the Crew have gaps, but so does everyone else. But Crew fans, of all sizes, like where the club is currently situated. How that plays out on Saturday is anyone’s guess. But anything less than a v3.0 victory over an RSL club that struggles when playing outside of Rice-Eccles would be a difficult result for Crew faithful to swallow.

Now, would you guys please move into your swank new stadium so that I don’t have to look at that ping-pongy Rice-Eccles turf any longer? Seriously, the new place looks amazing. Congrats.