As the MLS Cup playoffs get set to begin, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.
In this installment, Columbus Crew beat writer Craig Merz focuses on Eddie Gaven and how he's matured from one of the youngest phenoms in the league into a versatile, crafty and absolutely essential veteran, with an MLS Cup and a working man's beard to show for it. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.
COLUMBUS – When the Crew needed a forward to replace the suspended Guillermo Barros Schelotto for a match at New York on May 20, who did coach Robert Warzycha pick?
In the 2-2 tie at Toronto FC on Oct. 16, who moved from his usual spot on the right flank into the central midfield?
And when goalkeeper William Hesmer went down late in last weekend’s match against visiting Philadelphia with a season-ending shoulder injury, who stepped in and saved two of three shots on goal to preserve a Crew victory in a rare spot between the pipes?
The answer to all of the above is Eddie Gaven. And the Crew’s Mr. Versatile is one of the most critical figures in the team’s drive for a second MLS Cup title in three seasons.
“He’s a good fit for any team, any system, any lineup,” Warzycha said. “He keeps the ball and has composure with it. He works hard for 90 minutes.”
[inline_node:316210]Gaven and the Crew open their Eastern Conference semifinal on the road Thursday against the Colorado Rapids, but with Gaven’s flexibility, even Warzycha is still figuring out where he’ll play his unique utility man when the postseason starts.
If Gaven were to play in the middle, that would give Warzycha the option to use Emmanuel Ekpo or even forward Emilio Renteria on the right flank opposite Robbie Rogers.
Otherwise, Gaven could be running on the right and flawlessly switching sides with Rogers as they do numerous times throughout a game.
“Whatever my role is for that game, I try to go out and do my best,” Gaven said. “It doesn’t really matter to me where I play.”
A Striker At Heart
Despite all the options Gaven has now, being a striker came naturally as a youngster in Hamilton, N.J.
“I liked playing forward back then,” he said. “Obviously it’s a lot easier when you’re 10 years old and can run by everybody, but that doesn’t work in this league. It wasn’t until I came into the league that I started playing outside.”
Remarkably, it took only six years to go from that precocious kid of to becoming the second-youngest player (16 years, 232 days) to score in an MLS game, when he scored a game-winner in overtime to help the MetroStars top D.C. United on July 5, 2003.
[inline_node:321791]Gaven turned 24 last week, but to most people who have followed the league it seems like he has been around since its inception in 1996. Maybe it’s his perpetual scraggly beard, or the fact he’s played 208 regular-season games and another 12 in the playoffs as he makes his sixth career trip to the postseason.
“I still feel young,” he said. “Sometimes my legs feel like they’re 42, but at heart I feel like I’m just a kid.”
He’s young enough to be the same age as some of the players on developmental contracts, but old enough to be considered a seasoned pro.
“He definitely doesn’t have to carry any bags because he has been in the league forever,” midfielder Kevin Burns said. “I don’t consider him a wily veteran, but he is a leader on the team. He would have been if he just came here last year. He has one of those attitudes that he’ll be a leader.”
Gaven followed the one goal his first season with a combined 15 over the next two years, but that wasn’t enough to prevent him from being traded along with Chris Leitch to the Crew for Edson Buddle on March 28, 2006.
Said Warzycha: “We saw the potential.”
Although Gaven played for all the US youth teams and made three appearances for the national team in 2004-05, many considered him a bust by the time he arrived in Columbus at 19 years old.
But even as the Crew missed the postseason in 2006 and 2007, Gaven began to develop into the two-way player he is now. Thanks in some part to the guidance from former coach Sigi Schmid and some more to his own maturation, Gaven scored a combined nine goals and added 11 assists in '06 and '07 while the Crew started building the foundation that led to glory in 2008.
[inline_node:321793]Gaven missed five games that year with a sprained ankle and his numbers dipped, but he was a crucial asset in the postseason. He scored the game-winner in the 55th minute of the Eastern Conference final against Chicago, and then assisted on the final goal to Frankie Hejduk a week later when the Crew captured the first MLS title in franchise history with a 3-1 win over New York.
“He’s a young guy with all the potential in the world,” Hesmer said. “He’s been through a lot of the tough games and knows what it takes to win. Guys have a lot of respect for him and look up to him.”
Added teammate Brian Carroll: “I see nothing to hold him back from getting better.”
The true value of Gaven has been his ability to give Warzycha quality minutes each the past two seasons, when the Crew played through congested schedules because of outside competitions.
“His fitness is always up there,” Crew strength and fitness coach Mike Tremble said. “Eddie has all the pieces. He can run for a long time, but he can also make a quick sprint and repeat and recover.”
Tremble said Gaven plays tougher than his 6-foot, 165-pound frame suggests.
“Eddie has soccer-specific strength, I would say,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of guys that can push him around. He’s very strong in his athletic stance. He’s very strong in motion. He’s a tough guy. Nobody would ever question that.”
Despite his fitness, Gaven’s numbers have dropped this year. He’s down to three goals from six during the team’s run to the Supporters’ Shield, and a concussion suffered against Chivas USA on July 31 put him on the shelf for two games.
“I still don’t think he is playing his best game” Warzycha said. “He has great endurance, good vision and he works so hard. He just needs some luck in front of the goal.”
Gaven said he’s not pressing to score as the playoffs get underway, and the key to his success is to relax and enjoy the moment.
“Every time I go on the field now, I put myself back like I’m a little kid again,” he said. “I go out and try to have fun, work hard, run hard and do all things I did when I was seven or eight.
“It’s the same game now as it was back then.”
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