COLUMBUS, Ohio – When the Columbus Crew opted not to keep veteran left back Gino Padula this season, the club knew it was taking a risk.
His slated replacement would be second-year player Shaun Francis, who had only 12 MLS starts to his credit, and there was no real backup plan: Jed Zayner had been traded to D.C. United in August and Danny O'Rourke underwent knee surgery in November and still has not returned.
Seven games into this season, Columbus (3-1-3) seem to have allayed the fears even though a hamstring injury has prevented Francis from playing a single minute.
Indiana University product Rich Balchan had filled in nicely, but when the rookie was sidelined due to illness for Saturday’s match, converted midfielder Josh Gardner (pictured above) had to step in and made a critical goal line block to preserve a 2-1 victory over Vancouver.
“It’s great to have both guys as assets,” goalkeeper William Hesmer said. “And we’ve got [Francis], too. Left back for a lot of teams is a huge trouble spot. It looks like we’ve got an embarrassment of riches there now.”
Gardner spent four years in the minors since his last league appearance for the LA Galaxy in 2006.
“He’s got more experience than Rich, obviously,” Hesmer said. “Rich is more raw. Josh is good with his feet. He’s serving a good ball, he can pass well. He doesn’t have the recovery that Rich does to cover up for other mistakes. He doesn’t have Rich’s speed, but Rich is one of the fastest guys I’ve seen.”
The Crew are also building midfield depth, where Kevin Burns has gotten the start recently over Dejan Rusmir (pictured right) in the holding position. On Saturday, Rusmir returned to the lineup in front of Burns as the replacement for Emmanuel Ekpo and assisted on Emilio Renteria’s second goal.
Later, Rusmir dropped to defensive mid after Ekpo subbed in for Burns.
The shuffling hasn’t affected the chemistry because the buildup for Renteria’s score was as good as the Crew has had all season.
“We’re playing different than the Crew usually plays,” midfielder Dilly Duka said after the match. “We’re playing with five midfielders, so we’re definitely enjoying the ball more. It’s been coming. We’ve been training good all week and it showed. [Last] Thursday in an intra-squad game, we were clicking there and it rubbed off [on Saturday]."
BY THE NUMBERS
18 – Ranking (last in MLS) for first-half goals with zero scored. All other teams have at least two.
9 – Games unbeaten (6-0-3) in all competitions in Crew Stadium since losing to Seattle on Sept. 18. The Crew host the Sounders on Saturday, looking to improve on a 4-0-2 mark in the past six regular-season home games.
3 – Penalty kicks taken and converted by three players – Robbie Rogers, Andres Mendoza and Rentería. The Crew were awarded seven PKs in 30 games last season.
0 – Losses in 13 games to Canadian teams after beating the expansion Whitecaps in their first meeting. The Crew are 5-0-7 vs. Toronto.