COLUMBUS, Ohio – The clearance by Chad Marshall in the 31st minute of Saturday's 2-0 win against Montreal was something the Columbus Crew have seen countless times since he debuted for the club nine-and-a-half years ago. They just hadn't seen it much lately, with the big defender sidelined for much of the last month.
His header off an Impact corner kick six yards in front of goal could have been easily overlooked, except that it was a proclamation that the airways once again belonged to the 6-foot-4 Marshall, who returned to the lineup after he missing the previous four MLS matches because of a hamstring injury.
"It's something I try to bring to the team, being good on set pieces both for and against us," he said.
Without Marshall and the injured Josh Williams (6-foot-3), who also returned for the Impact match after missing two matches, the Crew lost their superiority on flighted balls.
"It's nice for the team to know we're not going to give up anything in the air," Marshall said.
No play exemplified how much the Crew missed Marshall than the previous match at Philadelphia, when wiry Union midfielder Brian Carroll — who stands just 5-foot-10 — was able to flick a corner kick by Sébastien Le Toux to the far post where Sheanon Williams scored the second of three quick goals in the 3-0 victory.
Would Marshall have been able to prevent that? No one knows for certain, but the Crew always prefer their chances of the 2008 and '09 MLS Defender of the Year.
"It keeps the field smaller for us because obviously it's hard to get over the top of his head," midfielder Danny O'Rourke said. "He wins a lot of balls and I've been playing with him for so long that I know when he's going to hit it long and I can step up, or when he's going to try and hit it down to me."
The return of Marshall and Williams to the central defense couldn't have come at a better time since Marshall's usual partner, Gláuber, suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee last Thursday.
In addition to being strong defensively, Gláuber (6-foot-4) provided another aerial option on set pieces, allowing Williams enough space to score three times off restarts.
"It's going to be more difficult because I normally run off those guys and let the defense go after them while I sneak around back," Williams said. "Now it's one less target."
But no matter how good Williams is in the air, he knows there's only one king of the skies.
"I don't think there's anybody else in the league who can control the box like he can," he said of Marshall. "When the ball's coming his way, I certainly don't want to be in his way because he's going for it. That's a lot of mass coming at you.
"It's definitely a security blanket back there with Chad."