Fellow Big Ten rookies make it count for Crew in draw

Robert Warzycha congratulates Rich Balchan.

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HARRISON, N.J. – There was a lot at play on the stunning stoppage-time goal that rescued a point Saturday for the Crew in a 1-1 tie vs. New York in Red Bull Arena.

Not only were the principles first-round picks in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, but goal-scorer Rich Balchan (12th overall from Indiana) and set-up man Justin Meram (18th overall, Michigan) are Big Ten products as well as roommates on this road trip.

“There’s nothing better than my roommate, Rich Balchan getting on the end for his first goal,” Meram said after the match. “I’m very proud of him.”

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What’s more, Meram was supposed to replace Balchan in the 74th minute, but midfielder Dilly Duka, who sprained his right ankle in the opening 10 minutes and could miss Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake, told coach Robert Warzycha he could no longer go.

“I sprained it in the first 10 minutes of the game,” Duka said. “I saw a sub coming and I think they were going to push me into the middle so I told Bobby I had to come out. I knew I couldn’t contribute anymore. I knew I couldn’t track on defense and couldn’t do anything on offense because my ankle swelled up. It’s huge.”

The fourth official changed the substitute board from Balchan’s No. 2 to 11 and the course of the game was changed, albeit at the last moment.

New York (4-2-7) got a goal from Mehdi Ballouchy in the ninth minute and appeared headed to victory as most of the 20,393 fans — except for the boisterous 100 or so Crew supporters — were ready to celebrate.

The Red Bulls had the ball in the right corner for most of the posted two minutes of added time before Jeff Cunningham was able to strip the ball in the Crew’s own third. He got it to Shaun Francis, who sent a sky ball past midfield where Emmanuel Ekpo did a masterful job of holding off several Red Bulls before knocking it down the left side to Meram.

“We had to get the ball because it was deep in our own half,” Ekpo explaind. “We had to get out and get more men in front of it and build off that. I saw the ball and went for it. It was one of those chances you have to take. It paid off. I got the ball to Justin and he made a very good run.”

With the clock inching toward 1:45 of extra time, Meram — who made his MLS debut last week against Chivas USA — dribbled toward the corner then cut toward the goal and sent a crafty ball to the middle of the goal box.

“When you go to the line you have to lay it back because you know you’re teammates are running,” Meram said. “I saw black [uniform] in my eye because I’m running full speed. Once I played it, I looked up and saw him.”

Balchan raced in from his holding midfielder position, took the ball in stride and scored with his right foot.

“I knew the game was coming to an end and I saw Justin make a beautiful run,” Balchan said. “I had what was left of me and made a run and left it on the field. There’s no time to think. It’s all reactive. The ball was put perfectly on my foot. I opened my foot up a little bit and put it far post.”

How unlikely was the goal? It was Balchan’s first shot in his MLS career after 990 minutes.

“I don’t do much finishing in practice,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I hit the ball and it went in.”

While the goal was dramatic and might give the Crew (3-3-6) a boost heading into the next match, the fact is they are 0-2-3 in their past five games and are 1-2-4 over seven games.

“I think we played well enough to deserve a point,” Warzycha said. “I think we were a good attacking team. I think we were going for the goal.”

He may have some decisions to make for the next game because starting forward Tommy Heinemann left in the first half with a left hamstring injury and Dilly could join him on the sideline. For now, the Crew will take some satisfaction out of the point against the Red Bulls.

“The rookies came in with a last-minute goal and caught them by surprise,” Duka said.