OBETZ, Ohio — The reason Ben Speas is at ease taking on veteran defenders despite being a relative newcomer to MLS is that he's been doing it nearly his entire life.
The Columbus Crew's speedy 22-year-old midfielder grew up with a ball to dribble and a full-sized goal to aim for in the backyard of his northeastern Ohio home.
"I've always been drawn to attacking players whether it's Ronaldinho or other Brazilians," he told MLSsoccer.com this week. "That's my favorite part of the game — dribbling. I've learned over the years the right time to take somebody on or just play quick. I love to have the ball at my feet. I feel that's when I'm most dangerous.
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"When I was little I would always be dribbling," he added. "I tell people all the time that the best thing you can do is dribble the ball. That's how you get your touch so good, get a feel for the ball."
The Stow, Ohio, native has pushed his way into the Crew starting XI the past four matches after making his MLS debut in the 2012 season finale against Toronto FC.
"He started the last game last season and showed us a lot of good things, positive things so we were thinking about him in the lineup this year," head coach Robert Warzycha said. "But without the hard work and success he had in the preseason it wouldn't have been possible. He showed he deserved to play."
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He's played so well that when forward Jairo Arrieta returned from World Cup qualifying duties with Costa Rica last week, Warzycha opted to keep midfielder Dominic Oduro up top so Speas could remain in the lineup against Philadelphia.
"It's all about getting the chances and having a good impression on the coaching staff and your teammates," Warzycha said.
By doing so, Speas is championing the cause for himself and the four other Homegrown players on the roster who came through the Crew Soccer Academy.
"It gives hope to all us younger guys, after struggling through his first year with injuries and fighting for time [in 2012], that he's been rewarded his second year," rookie defender Chad Barson said.
Speas, who played two seasons for current Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter at the University of Akron before transferring to North Carolina and helping the Tar Heels claim the 2011 College Cup by scoring the winning goal, is the most successful Columbus Homegrown so far. Forward Aaron Horton made one brief appearance in his first two years and is currently out after undergoing knee surgery. Goalkeeper Matt Lampson appeared in three league matches as a rookie last season, winning two, while Barson and fellow first-year midfielder Wil Trapp are awaiting their debuts.
Patience is the key said Speas, who missed the first three months of the 2012 regular season because of sports hernia surgery.
"I didn't play much in games last year, but I felt like I still learned a lot in training," he said. "If you're not playing you have to focus on yourself and getting better because eventually you're going to get out there."