2011 Columbus Preview: Young Crew grow up

The Tweet and Lowdown:

New Crew must find a scorer to replace the great Schelotto and patch the D while breaking in half of the roster. Rebuilding isn’t an option.

Setting the Scene:

The Columbus Crew opened last season as the defending Supporters’ Shield winners, but they ran out of gas after going unbeaten in their first eight games of 2010. A heavy load of US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League matches made the club look ordinary the final two months of the season.

[inline_node:326328]Goals were once again at a premium, although the defense was better in 2009. Still, that was enough to signal wholesale changes in Columbus this offseason.

By getting rid of All-Star Guillermo Barros Schelotto — the league MVP in 2008 and the Crew’s top scorer the past three seasons — coach Robert Warzycha signaled his intent to push two forwards into the box instead of having Schelotto withdrawn. His departure was among nine of the top 20 players being let go and they represented 53 percent (21 of 40) of the scoring last season.

The return of Jeff Cunningham (11 goals for FC Dallas in 2010) could help. His next goal will tie Jaime Moreno for the MLS career lead at 133 and will be his 63rd in a Crew uniform to break a deadlock with Brian McBride for the club’s all-time mark. Cunningham was with Columbus from 1998 to 2004.

Chilean right back Sebastian Miranda was an important offseason acquisition and his experience should help offset the loss of captain Frankie Hejduk. But the middle of the field remains a work in progress.

Key Changes:

Players in: Rich Balchan (Indiana University), Jeff Cunningham (FC Dallas), Josh Gardner (Carolina, USSF D2), Cole Grossman (Duke University), Tom Heinemann (Carolina, USSF D2), Julius James (D.C. United), Justin Meram (Univ. of Michigan), Sebastian Miranda (Unión Española, Chile) Dejan Rusmir (Farul Constanta, Romania)

Players out: Eric Brunner (Portland), Brian Carroll (Philadelphia), Jason Garey (Houston), Frankie Hejduk (Los Angeles), Steven Lenhart (San Jose), Adam Moffat (Portland), Duncan Oughton (retired), Gino Padula (unsigned), Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Gimnasia de La Plata, Argentina)

WATCH: Crew players, head coach discuss key team's losses

Star Attraction: Jeff Cunningham

It might seem odd that the Crew’s marquee player is a 34-year-old forward, but consider he replaces one who was 37 last season (Schelotto).

Cunningham will battle for a first-team spot against Andres Mendoza and Emilio Renteria, but he will likely by counted on for the occasional start and contributions off the bench as he did with FCD.

His acquisition eased the sting of losing so many popular and vital players, and he will be expected to be more of a leader on and off the field than he was his first time around in the black and gold.

[inline_node:302409]Unsung Hero: Danny O'Rourke

The Columbus native hasn’t scored a goal since entering MLS in 2005, but the midfielder/defender was the Crew’s MVP two seasons ago. His worth to the team will probably be felt in the early going as he recovers from offseason knee surgery.

O’Rourke can fill the defensive midfield role occupied by the traded Carroll, or any of the spots on the back line, while offering an edge that is often missing from the lineup. With such a young team, O’Rourke is happy to embrace a mentorship, although he wouldn’t mind finally scoring a goal, either.

Ready for Primetime: Robbie Rogers

Look for a midfielder to have a breakout 2011. That’s the Crew’s wish. Second-year Generation adidas player Dilly Duka could be a candidate after a disappointing rookie season in which he played just 160 minutes.

But the real attention will be on US winger Rogers. Columbus desperately need him to return to his 2008 form when he had six goals and three assists to earn Best XI honors. He has two goals in 42 games since. He’s invaluable in that he can play on either side and has speed, but the Crew’s patience may be running out.

WATCH: Veterans keep Crew's core intact

Storylines to Watch:

The health of the Crew has to be a concern. Goalkeepers William Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum missed significant portions of the preseason while recovering from injuries.

O’Rourke won’t be available through early schedule and two-time Defender of the Year Chad Marshall suffered another concussion last month. The Crew obtained veteran defender James as cover because there isn’t a lot of experience among the defenders.

There is a leadership void with the release of veterans such as Schelotto, Hejduk and Oughton. Some of the best remaining players are quiet by nature, i.e. Marshall and Eddie Gaven, so expect there to be committee of leaders in the locker room.

If the South American connection of Rentería (Venezuela) and Mendoza (Peru) can’t provide at least 20 goals between them, the Crew will be in trouble – even with some tallies from Cunningham.

What He Said:

“Last year we got off to a great start and kind of stumbled at the end. If I had it my way, we’d do it in reverse.”

– Goalkeeper William Hesmer

If Everything Goes Right:

Despite so much turnover, the Crew still have a solid core of returnees to be successful. But if injuries crop up, a lack of veteran depth will plague Warzycha.

Even if there were no additions, there is enough talent to make the MLS Cup Playoffs in the wide-open Eastern Conference. Fortunately, Miranda should be a big plus and rookies such as Balchan and Meram could make a difference.

A lot has to fall in place, but without the Champions League to worry about, the Crew should be fresh down the stretch to make a run at a postseason spot in the East.


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