OBETZ, Ohio – It has been nearly 16 months since the Crew last played in Houston, and while some things have changed off the field, surprisingly little has been altered on it.
The 1-1 draw in Robertson Stadium last March was the 2009 season opener and the debut of Crew head coach Robert Warzycha, who took the reins after Sigi Schmid took over the top job in Seattle after guiding the Crew to their first championship.
As the Crew (8-2-3) prepare for Saturday’s match against the Dynamo (5-7-3), Warzycha is now firmly established in his second full season, and the Crew no longer wear the crown.
When the Crew began their MLS Cup defense only midfielder Brad Evans was missing from the starting lineup that beat New York in the championship game the previous November.
Keeping the core together was important then and it is still a priority.
“It’s a huge help for us, just the camaraderie in the locker room,” forward Jason Garey said. “We know each other on the field, too. It makes a huge difference.”
Sixteen of the 18 players who dressed for last season’s opener are still with the team - forward Alejandro Moreno went to Philadelphia in the expansion draft and rookie midfielder Alex Grendi was released – and up to nine may start against the Dynamo.
William Hesmer will be in goal again Saturday as he was for the first game of 2009. Defenders Frankie Hejduk, Chad Marshall and Gino Padula are expected to replicate their starting roles. Danny O’Rourke was also on the backline but he probably will be replaced this year by Andy Iro after playing 90 minutes Tuesday in a US Open Cup match.
Midfielders Brian Carroll, Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers and forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto were in the starting lineup then and are expected to start again. Emmanuel Ekpo got the nod in 2009 while midfielder Adam Moffat recovered from knee surgery. Moffat should start Saturday along with Garey, who was a substitute at Houston last season because Moreno started.
With 18 of the 24 players in at least their third year with the club, the mistakes should be minimized.
“We know each other’s tendencies and what he does well and doesn’t do well,” Marshall said. “Once you have that understanding it makes the game easier.”
Houston, meanwhile, are undergoing a transformation after serving as a model of consistency in 2006 and 2007.
In part because of injuries to Geoff Cameron and Brad Davis, plus the overseas departures of Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark, the Dynamo could have just four starters Saturday that played in the first game last season vs. the Crew: Pat Onstad, Richard Mulrooney, Bobby Boswell and Brian Ching.
“When you talk about the successful teams in this league, they’re able to keep the core guys together for long periods going back to Houston and New England from five, six years ago,” Garey said. “Now, Salt Lake’s kept a group together. We’ve kept a group together. LA’s got their group together now and those are the teams that seem to be winning games and are at the top of the league.”