COLUMBUS – Josh Gardner, a second division midfielder who became a serviceable left back for the Columbus Crew in 2011, wasn’t long for Ohio, as he was chosen by Montreal in the MLS Expansion Draft on Wednesday.
“It’s never easy to lose someone, especially a player like Josh,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said. “He was a left-side player, which is never easy to find in this league, and he has a good shot.
“More than that, he was a good warrior and a good teammate. All the guys in the locker room liked him.”
Crew left back Shaun Francis said of Gardner on his Twitter account, “A very good player with a cannon of a left foot......Josh we had some good times bro, wish u all the best & I know U will do great!!!”
And Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers tweeted, “Josh Gardner one of the best left backs in our league, he will ball in Montreal!”
Gardner, 29, was with the LA Galaxy from 2004-06, winning the MLS Cup in the middle year, but spent the following four seasons in the lower levels with Seattle and Carolina. It was with the RailHawks in 2010 that he started the conversion to being a defender.
He proved a prescient pickup by the Crew in February because Francis, the incumbent starter heading into the season, missed two-thirds of the year due to injuries.
Gardner made 21 starts and had two goals and two assists for the Crew.
“Josh had a very successful career in the [minors] and has done well,” Impact coach Jesse Marsch said during the draft. “He started with the LA Galaxy and had a great year with the Columbus Crew. He established himself on the field as both a valuable left midfielder and a valuable left back.”
Crew technical director Brian Bliss said Monday when the 11-player protected list was revealed that making Francis and Gardner available to Montreal were extremely hard choices, made more difficult when the team was informed that Dilly Duka and Tony Tchani had been graduated from the Generation adidas program and were thus eligible for selection by the Impact.
The Crew opted to protect the midfielders.
“That left five guys for those two spots that we used on the Generation adidas guys,” Bliss said, “Francis and Gardner and [forwards] Justin Meram, Tommy Heinemann and [Andres] Mendoza.”
Although the gamble to keep two left backs unprotected failed when Gardner was selected, Bliss believes Francis can regain the form that, by the end of his rookie season in 2010, had him overtaking veteran Gino Padula in the starting lineup.
“Shaun had a subpar performance this season but he got injured at the start and missed 20, 22 games,” Bliss said. “When he came back he was thrown out there and didn’t do well, but he showed the year before that he was making progress.”
Warzycha said Rich Balchan, entering his second season in 2012, and veteran Danny O’Rourke might also be given the opportunity to claim the position.
“We have other options,” Warzycha said. “We could use the draft or we might go out and get somebody.”
Gardner became the sixth Crew player taken in the expansion draft since 2006. The others were Ritchie Kotschau (Toronto FC, 2006), Ned Grabavoy (San Jose, 2007), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders, 2008), Alejandro Moreno (Philadelphia, 2009) and Eric Brunner and Adam Moffat (Portland, 2010).