Even with an opportunity to take the lead in the race for the Supporters' Shield with a win against the last-place New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew coach Robert Warzycha said starting standout forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto was too much of a risk.
Schelotto was among five starters in the 5-0 midweek defeat at Mexico's Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League absent from the first XI Sunday in Giants Stadium.
The Crew lost 1-0 to end a five-game winning streak but still lead the Eastern Conference by a point (39-38) ahead of Chicago in one fewer match.
Warzycha started forwards Steven Lenhart and Jason Garey for the Schelotto-Alejandro Moreno combo, replaced Robbie Rogers at left midfield with Emmanuel Ekpo and inserted central midfielder Adam Moffat for Danny O'Rourke. Andy Gruenebaum made his first appearance in goal since June 20 because William Hesmer was ill.
"That was the best lineup for the game," Warzycha said. "To my mind, every lineup I put on the field is going to win the game and that was the best lineup."
The most notable omission was Schelotto, last year's league MVP who is tied for second in goals this season with 10 despite not scoring since June 14. He missed a month because of a hamstring strain before returning in stoppage time against FC Dallas on Aug. 15 and played 53 minutes against Cruz Azul.
Warzycha said Schelotto is not fully recovered and playing on the unforgiving field of Giants Stadium was a factor in him not starting, especially with the Crew idle for two weeks.
"I don't think he's 100 percent. He's needs training and some more games but the other thing is you don't want to risk more injury playing on turf," said Warzycha. "Guillermo wasn't performing the previous two games. It wasn't a gamble. You're not gambling when you have Lenhart and Garey on the field. They have scored goals before. I thought we were going to win the game with Lenhart and Garey.
"If someone is not performing, not scoring goals and somebody looks better he's going to play. Nobody is guaranteed a spot that they are going to play every game."
The Crew (10-4-9) had several opportunities off of nine corners but could not break through so Schelotto entered in the 88th minute to push for the equalizer. The Crew did not have another dead ball chance.
"With the set pieces we were getting at the end of the game I thought he could help," he said. "There was good service from Manu (Ekpo) and good service from Gino (Padula). I thought maybe someone else would get lucky. We were inches away from scoring a goal."
It never came and the Crew lost in MLS play for only the second time in 19 matches.
"I definitely thought we played well enough to get a point," Lenhart said before heading home to California to go camping and "hang out with good friends" until training resumes on Labor Day.
"The break is good for us," Warzycha said. "We are a point out of the overall. We'd won 10 games in the last 18 games. Before the loss we won five straight. Even a championship team is going to lose some games. It's not possible to win every game."
Upon the team's return, it must focus on a tough stretch with seven matches (four MLS and three Champions League) in 21 days beginning with a home game against Houston on Sept. 13. The Dynamo's 40 points are one better than the Crew for the Supporters' Shield lead although Columbus has two games in hand. However, the field is tightening with Los Angeles tied in points with Chicago.
The Crew will exclusively face contenders down the stretch. In their final seven matches they will play the top three in the West (Houston, LA and Seattle) and three teams behind them in the East (Chicago, New England twice and D.C.).
New England trails the Crew by six but has two games in hand. The teams meet twice in the final three weeks, including the season finale at Crew Stadium on Oct. 25.
After last year becoming the first team since the 2002 Galaxy to win the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup in the same season, the Crew don't appear to be as concerned about doing the double again.
"I want to win the conference so we have home-field advantage. That's the main thing," Warzycha said.
The Crew beat Chicago in the conference title last year at home and would like to be the host again in Crew Stadium where it has not lost in 22 matches.
O'Rourke agrees with Warzycha but also realizes that it might take capturing the Supporters' Shield to win the Eastern Conference.
"Honestly, I think the most important thing is to win the Eastern Conference and have that home-field advantage. If you're able to reach the conference final, that's huge," said O'Rourke. "Then again, being the best team in the league -- all over the world that's a huge deal. To be called the best in the season and to win the playoffs would be a great double."
Craig Merz is a contributor to MLSnet.com