Crew View: Ekpo thrives in new d-mid role vs. Chivas

Emmanuel Ekpo

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – The further midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo is from the attacking goal, the better he seems to play.

Ekpo, who had no points in 24 games last season, made a start at forward in the second game this season without success. However, he earned his first assist since September of 2009 in his first career start as a defensive midfielder on Saturday against Chivas USA.

Later in the match, he moved up field to the more familiar attacking mid role and scored for the first time in 24 months to help the Crew (3-3-5) to a 3-3 tie.

“It feels good to get a goal in the first half of the season,” he said. “Hopefully it will continue. At the start of the game I played as a holding midfielder when I had the assist, then I knew I pretty much had an attacking ability to get the ball forward because we were really dangerous.”

The Crew could use more games like that from Ekpo with Robbie Rogers away with the US national team for possibly all of June.

Ekpo showed promise in 2009, his second year in MLS, when he had two goals and six assists. But the Nigerian Olympian (2008) slumped badly last season.  

Maybe all it took for a return to form was a good-luck charm in countryman Julius Ubido, who began a tryout with the Crew on Wednesday.

LEFT BEHIND

Ekpo was not only the tactical change for coach Robert Warzycha.

He sent defensive midfielder Dejan Rusmir to the bench, moved midfielder Eddie Gaven from the right side to Ekpo’s center spot, had left midfielder Robbie Rogers switch flanks and inserted Josh Gardner on the left wing.

Warzycha blamed himself for the leaky defense that allowed two first-half goals. He said Gardner was playing too close to left back Rich Balchan.

“There was just confusion,” Warzycha said. “I think (Gardner) was trying to defend. He was next to Rich too much and he wasn't covering the middle.”

Balchan, a rookie, struggled again before sliding into his more natural holding midfielder spot after halftime, while Gardner dropped to the back line.

Warzycha doesn’t want to destroy Balchan’s confidence, but he was exposed on the first goal and moving him into a more comfortable position could lead to the potential return on Saturday of left back Shaun Francis, who has yet to play this season because of a hamstring strain.

RARE AIR

Chivas’ second goal by Andrew Boyens was off a corner kick by Heath Pearce and one of the few times center back Chad Marshall has been beaten by a header.

Goats’ first-year coach Robin Fraser, who was the MLS Defender of the Year in 2004 for the Crew when Marshall was a rookie, was thankful for the gift.

“For me, Chad is one of the best I’ve ever seen in the air,” Fraser said. “Every now and then the bounce goes your way — put it that way.

“It’s not like I’d say Chad Marshall is a guy you want to go after because for the most part he’s going to win those.”