Preseason overhaul paying dividends for resurgent Crew

Robert Warzycha congratulates Rich Balchan.

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

OBETZ, Ohio — Andy Gruenebaum has been with the Columbus Crew since 2006 and owns an MLS Cup ring to prove it.

But when the goalkeeper had to sit the start of preseason training in January because of a hip injury, he was treated like an outsider by the drastically overhauled roster.

“All the new guys were like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ because I was chillin’ in jeans,” he said. “I was talking to Justin Meram about that. He thought I was a team manager.”

Meram, a rookie from the University of Michigan, could be excused for not knowing Gruenebaum, just as much of the media has to be wondering the same thing about the revamped — some said rebuilding — Crew.

Who the heck are these guys? And could they possibly justify the overhaul?

Individually, they might be a bunch of no-names: Not a single player was named to the game-day roster for the MLS All-Star Game this season, and none were called up for the US national team's friendly against Mexico on Aug. 10 in Philadelphia.

Apparently the adage “success breeds recognition” was denied access at the Ohio border.

“All the guys are really humble, really down-to-earth,” defender Julius James said. “We have no prima donnas.”

James was one of the unheralded offseason acquisitions that have worked out for the much-maligned trio of team president/general manager Mark McCullers, technical director Brian Bliss and coach Robert Warzycha.

They were universally skewered after jettisoning such players as Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Duncan Oughton, Frankie Hejduk, Jason Garey, Steven Lenhart and Brian Carroll.

To outsiders, it appeared the heart and soul of the team had been gutted. Yet entering Friday’s match at Colorado (9:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer), the Crew (9-6-7, 34 points) are atop the Eastern Conference by two points over Philadelphia.

“Nobody was in our corner when we made these moves,” Bliss said. “Somewhere down the line give us some credit that maybe we knew what we’re doing. We didn’t make any decisions willy-nilly. It was well thought-out and we spent a lot of time discussing it and looking at options.”

While additions such as defenders James, Sebastián Miranda and Josh Gardner and forward Tommy Heinemann have been justified, and the 2011 MLS SuperDraft picks (Meram, Rich Balchan, Cole Grossman and Bernardo Anor) have made major contributions, the key was keeping eight players from the 2008 MLS championship team.

“This is a team that definitely knows how to win and I think we’ve shown that this year,” said midfielder Eddie Gaven, one of the eight.

But skeptics are still waiting for the Crew to tumble.

“Who cares what they think?” Gruenebaum said. “It’s all about what we believe in the locker room and we believe in each other. Everyone keeps saying we’re a fluke. My mom thinks we’re the best thing in the league. That’s all that matters to me.”

He is not alone in dismissing the F-word (fluke). The Crew are 7-4-4 (including 5-0-3 at home) against the supposedly superior Western Conference and last Saturday beat Real Salt Lake in Rio Tinto Stadium for the first time.

“We’ve won against some quality teams like Salt Lake, Colorado, Dallas,” Warzycha said. “If it was only one game I would say it’s a fluke. It’s a combination of hard work and some talent we have.”

Bliss said the Crew’s record is surprises him only because of the inordinate amount of injuries that have tested the depth of the team, especially the youngsters.

“As it is, we’re doing fine but as you get into the playoffs it might wear you down a little bit,” he said. “If we get three or four guys back we might make a run at [the title].”