The signing of Tony Sanneh came at a perfect time for the Crew. Just as they lost one U.S. national team player in Frankie Hejduk, they seamlessly transitioned Sanneh into the lineup amidst a long unbeaten run -- helped in no small part by the versatility of Duncan Oughton.
As Hejduk left the Crew for a pair of 2006 World Cup qualifiers, Oughton yielded his central midfield role to Sanneh, moving to the right flank in place of Hejduk. But now that Hejduk has returned, he will return to the starting lineup for Saturday's match against the MetroStars -- despite the old adage of never breaking up a winning team, the Crew having won both matches with Hejduk away on international duty.
"Frankie will be back in the lineup," said Crew coach Greg Andrulis. "He's a tremendous part of the success that we've had."
Consequently Oughton -- or more likely rookie Chris Wingert -- will start the match Saturday on the substitute's bench in spite of their outstanding play over the last several matches.
If it is Wingert who is forced out of the starting 11, it would be a shame. His play over the last several games does not indicate that he is out of form, and his return to the bench would be as a casualty of numbers, not of recent play. The St. John's University product and 2003 M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winner has shown flashes brilliance on the left side of midfield since earning a starter's spot this season.
But it's just one example of the embarrassment of riches Andrulis now faces -- too many players are playing well to include them all in the first XI, a better situation than to have a number of players playing poorly or being decimated by injuries.
"It is great to have hard choices to make at this point in the season," he said.
Sanneh and Hejduk have not teamed up since the USA's loss to Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. On that night in Ulsan, Korea, the two played as the fullbacks. Now for the Crew, they have both moved into the midfield. Hejduk's lightning quick speed and relentless hustle have become staples of the Crew's midfield, while Sanneh's presence in a deep central midfield role has become rapidly adapted to help the Crew.
Though he's played in just two matches since his return, Sanneh has accomplished a lot. He assisted on the first goal in the 3-1 victory against the Galaxy in his debut and then scored the game-winning goal in the 1-0 victory against the Earthquakes last week -- a dramatic stoppage-time strike named MLS Goal of the Week -- all while helping the Crew continue their 12-game unbeaten streak.
"We knew he would settle in and obviously he is not 100 percent match-fit yet, but he is improving all of the time and that will come with games," said Andrulis. "He is healthy and enthusiastic. Obviously, he adds so much to the table. He is a great pro and a great guy."
After first coming into the league as an attacking presence, Sanneh has become known more for his defensive work rate and crossing capabilities than his scoring.
"It is always good to score and win a game. It is a very satisfying feeling especially because I was tired and just trying to hang in there and do something positive," he said.
Heading into this weekend's match against the MetroStars -- where the Crew have a chance to secure a playoff spot -- Sanneh is hoping he can bring some experience from his first MLS stint to Columbus, a stretch as part of the D.C. United dynasty that appeared in MLS Cup Finals from 1996 to 1998, winning the first two -- that success often coming at the expense of the Crew.
"That was then and this is now," said Sanneh. "We were a great team and will go down in history. Not many teams will ever reach that pinnacle, but hopefully we can start a new tradition here. My immediate goal is to win a MLS Cup with this team."
John Kuhn is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.