USOC: Mixing and matching no problem for Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio – MLS managers often use the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup to experiment. Teams all over the league combine young, inexperienced players with regulars and hope the mixture is enough to get by in the early rounds – as well as hoping to discover who can handle first team action and who can’t.

Thanks to a boatload of injuries, Columbus Crew head coach Robert Warzycha has been doing that all season anyway.

So he plans to once again mix and match when the Crew hosts the Dayton Dutch Lions on Tuesday at Crew Stadium (7:30 pm ET). And one season after losing to the Richmond Kickers in the competition, he will find his options more palatable this time around.

“I don’t see the line between older and younger players,” he said.

That’s because there isn’t one. Injuries have created a depth chart that is likely unmatched in the history of the organization. There have been 22 players who have started MLS games this season and none has seemed out of place.

The latest newcomer to play a role was rookie midfielder Kevan George, who got his first start in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Chicago. In the previous match at Seattle Sounders, a 2-0 victory, second-year midfielder Cole Grossman made his initial league start.

“It’s a good mix we have,” Warzycha said. “The last two games proved it. I can go with any lineup and they’ll work hard and they have a very good chance to win the game.”

Earlier in the season rookies Ethan Finlay and Kirk Urso were starters before injuries derailed their progress. Urso (adductor tendinitis) will not play Tuesday but Finlay could start in his first match since suffering a concussion May 12.

Warzycha said up to eight of Saturday’s starters may sit against Dayton (USL Pro – third division) but the Crew are hardly fielding a secondary team:

 Midfielder Chris Birchall, a frequent starter for MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy last season, made his first Crew appearance Saturday off the bench after being signed earlier in the month.

“It’s nice to be involved but obviously would have liked to have started the game to get my fitness up,” he said.

He should get his wish Tuesday.

• Costa Rican international Olman Vargas – who did not play Saturday – and Justin Meram, a scorer in three straight games before being benched Saturday, have something to prove and could be paired at forward.

• Last season’s starting center back, Julius James, is expected to play for the first time this year after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery then a collapsed lung in April.

“I’m ready to go,” he said. “There’s only one way to get fit and that’s to play games.”

There still should be opportunities for some young players to get invaluable minutes. Rookie Matt Lampson might spell Andy Gruenebaum in goal and Homegrown midfielder Ben Speas could get his first game as a pro after undergoing sports hernia surgery at the beginning of the season.

Defenders Korey Veeder and Aubrey Perry, who have yet to see MLS action, will likely be employed and Homegrown forward Aaron Horton – loaned to Dayton recently for a few weeks but used only in an exhibition game before returning to the Crew – is itching to see the field against the Dutch Lions.

“I hope I get a chance to play against them,” he said. “I know I’m not starting but I’d like to get some minutes.”