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No sophomore slumps expected for Columbus youngsters

Gehrig vs. Notre Dame

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Columbus Crew

OBETZ, Ohio – A lot can happen in a year.

In terms of player development, that statement certainly rings true in MLS – and with the Columbus Crew in particular this season.

With a whole host of players entering their “sophomore” years as professionals, much more is expected of them to push onto the next level after a season of becoming acclimatized to playing for pay.

“There’s higher expectations and higher confidence that these guys can come in and do the job,” assistant coach Mike Lapper told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “All those guys have a year under their belt; guys like Eric Gehrig, who we’re really thinking about. Is he ready to step in? Can he? I think we feel pretty confident. It’s exciting to know we have that depth in case we need those guys.”

Gehrig, a defender from Loyola Chicago, is one of five full-season second-year pros. The others are midfielders Bernardo Anor, Rich Balchan and Cole Grossman, and forward Justin Meram.

Defender Josh Williams, a signee in September 2010, and forward Aaron Horton, signed to a Homegrown contract 10 months ago, could also be considered part of the class of sophomores.

“With the second year comes expectations,” Gehrig said. “We did a good job last year and we’re going to continue to build on that this year. We’re a confident group. You have to be in this league.”

However there were certainly varying degrees of success last year.

Balchan started 18 games but groin injuries cut last season short and have continued to hamper him this season. Meram made 17 appearances and set up Balchan’s only goal. Grossman played two games while half of Gehrig’s eight appearances were starts. Horton played one game, while Anor earned MLS player of the week honors for his goal and assist vs. Houston.

Head coach Robert Warzycha expects each of the second-year players to show marked improvement no matter what their ranking on the roster is.

“The knowledge should be there,” he said. “The speed of play should be up, too. They should be more confident. The first year is usually difficult because of a lot of fitness and practices every day and getting into that routine. This year should be easier for them.”

Anor said he was like a sponge trying to absorb as much informtaion as he could during his first season in MLS, after coming out of the University of South Florida.

“We were watching the older guys playing and learning from them,” the former Venezuelan U-20 international said. “Hopefully it will help us get on the field. We’re expected to do better and know more about the game.”

If there was any slack given to last year’s rookies, that buffer is now gone.

“The mistakes have to be at a minimum,” Meram said. “I feel like there’s even more pressure now. You have to perform and if not, the new guys want your job, too.”