Crew caught leaning to the right
In the offseason, the Columbus Crew acquired Stephen Herdsman from the Colorado Rapids with hopes that he would answer the calling as the Crew's right back. The Jamaican-born player began the season well, starting the first eight games and helping the Crew respond from a season-opening three-game losing streak with a seven-game unbeaten run.
However, Herdsman suffered a groin injury in the fifth game of that streak, a home win against San Jose on May 29, and hasn't been able to return to action yet this season (and, at this point, is expected to be out for the year).
At halftime of that game, Nelson Akwari stepped into the lineup, as Crew coach Greg Andrulis changed from four to three in the back. The Project-40 player made the most of his chances, playing in 15 games, of which 13 were in the starting XI.
Things then got a little more complicated with the signing of Tony Sanneh. While Sanneh first made his mark in MLS as a wide midfielder in D.C. United's glory years, in recent years he's figured as a right back for Bruce Arena and the U.S. national team.
Add to the mix Frankie Hejduk, who's played in a wingback role in the 3-5-2 that Andrulis has favored though he's equally comfortable as a fullback, and New Zealand international Duncan Oughton, who has played in both positions as well, and suddenly the options on the right side of the Crew defense get pretty complicated.
With Hejduk away on international duty in Sanneh's first two appearances, things were a little easier, as Akwari held onto his starting place. But when Hejduk returned for last Saturday's match against the MetroStars, something had to give -- and it was Akwari who gave way to return to the substitutes bench.
Andrulis remained adamant that Akwari did not lose his place from a run of poor form.
"Nelson Akwari has been terrific, but when you have a national team player like Frankie Hejduk come back, you have to make room for him," Andrulis said. "It is simply a numbers game."
Hejduk, who started both of the USA's World Cup qualifiers at right fullback, returned to his customary right flank position against the MetroStars. The jack-of-all-trades Oughton switched to the right back position -- he had also played as a defensive midfielder before the addition of Sanneh.
Against the Metros, Oughton played the first half in the backline, but switched back to the defensive midfield position following the break to accommodate Sanneh, who was suffering from a minor illness.
"I was tired. I got sick before the game started. It could have been from medicine, but still we didn't play great in the first half," said Sanneh. "I did have some chances and I made a lot of runs forward, but I just didn't have enough energy and what I did have seemed to go really quickly."
Additionally, Sanneh is in the process of regaining his match fitness.
"I still have a ways to go. I am still 10 pounds overweight," said Sanneh. "Mentally, I am doing OK, but physically, I am still struggling a bit."
Andrulis was worried the pace of the midfield would be too fast for Sanneh to handle for 90 minutes. "We thought to extend Tony for 90 minutes in the midfield the way it was shaping up in the first half would have been tough," he said.
Sanneh, embraced the halftime role change and the challenges the Crew faced in the back.
"I switched to a different position and was asked to help more defensively and try to link more with the midfield and see how I could help distribute the ball out of the back," he said.
It also showed to the Crew boss that he has a wealth of options for all scenarios ahead as the Crew prepare for their postseason battles.
"When you add a new player, it takes a while to find where his best spot will be. I thought the change was a positive one," Andrulis said. "It is a good problem to have. They are a lot of very good players."
John Kuhn is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.