Crew ready to open season

The Columbus Crew kicked off their 2005 campaign with an open fan forum Monday evening at the Huntington Club at Columbus Crew Stadium.

Fervent fans were able to question general manager Mark McCullers, head coach Greg Andrulis, assistant coach Robert Warzycha, captain and defender Robin Fraser, and midfielders Kyle Martino and Danny Szetela about the upcoming season. Queries ranged across a wide spectrum of topics from personnel and tactics to the probability of raising beer prices (where there will likely be no increase).

After a major overhaul following 2003 season, the Crew have been much more low-key in renovating their roster for this season. The major move of the offseason saw Tony Sanneh sent to the Chicago Fire for striker Ante Razov, which fills the vacant hole up top left following the trade of Jeff Cunningham to the Colorado Rapids.

Before the early departure from MLS Cup playoffs by New England, the midseason addition of Sanneh appeared to give the Crew the inside track toward a potential first MLS Cup. They were unbeatable for a majority of the season in securing their first Supporters Shield.

But after falling short in the Eastern Conference Playoffs a year ago, the Black & Gold decided to trade from their excess of depth in the midfield and backline to compensate for the thin front line. The riches are evident as goalkeeper Jon Busch, defender Chad Marshall and midfielder Frankie Hejduk have all been called into the U.S. national team camp for the World Cup qualifying match against Trinidad & Tobago next week.

Fraser, the 2004 MLS defender of the year, looks forward to another year of leading the team from the back. Admittedly unhappy in Denver, the successful season has given him newfound energy and he looks prepared to extend his career even farther.

The veteran wisdom will surely help develop the young defenders such as Stephen Herdsman and Chad Marshall. An avid trainer, Fraser started preparing for this season a week after the Crew were eliminated from the 2004 MLS playoffs.

Martino used the offseason to recover from several injuries that occurred in 2004. A fixture in the starting XI, Martino was a man without a real position for much of the season. He began by playing in the classic creative midfield role but the team flourished when he partnered Edson Buddle as a withdrawn forward. However, Martino is projected to move back to the playmaker responsibility as Razov pairs with Buddle.

Another player who didn't take much of a break was Szetela. He joined forces with the other top young U.S. players such as Freddy Adu (D.C. United) and Eddie Gaven (MetroStars) to qualify for the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship. While the experience was outstanding for Szetela, the Crew are likely to miss their prized youngster for a substantial part of the season as the event is scheduled for June in the Netherlands. After initially being hesitant about joining the Crew instead of the MetroStars, Szetela fell in love with the Ohio city and said he has no second thoughts about the way things worked out for him.

Other than players training with the U.S. national team, Duncan Oughton will be the only other player unable to report when training begins. The New Zealand international underwent knee surgery during the offseason and will need a couple of more weeks to recuperate before beginning to train. Known for his versatility during his MLS career, Oughton is currently penciled in to play at right back for the season.

The forum was also used for Brian Maissonneuve, the lone remaining member of the inaugural Crew, to formally announce his retirement. The beloved midfielder boasts a long list of career achievements and will likely establish even more as a assistant coach beginning with the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., where he was recently hired.

The founding of the adidas reserve league will likely result in much more responsibility for Warzycha. Although plans are still incomplete, the league allows all MLS teams to increase roster sizes and yields the opportunity for young players to develop by getting in more matches. The Crew would like to schedule home reserve matches at Columbus Crew Stadium on Sundays on which the Crew play at home on Saturday. In addition to the reserve league, the Crew will schedule scrimmages for the team to compete.

Also at Monday's forum, the potential re-acquisition of Stern John was another hot topic with the fans. John has been on target six times thus far for England Coca-Cola Championship (first division) side Coventry City, which has spent much of the season near the relegation zone. However, the international transfer window has closed and will not reopen until after the MLS season has started. Andrulis mentioned that the Crew would pursue all financial possibilities when the window reopens.

The Crew will train on Tuesday in Columbus before embarking on a preseason camp in Bradenton. In Florida, they will scrimmage several colleges and MLS teams, including the expansion team Real Salt Lake in the inaugural Tom Fitzgerald festival on the campus of the University of Tampa on Feb. 13 before returning to Ohio on Valentine's Day.

They will then train in Columbus in between trips to La Manga, Spain, Virginia Beach, and Charleston, S.C. The training will prepare the Crew for their MLS opener on April 2 when they play host to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

John Kuhn is a contributor to This story wan not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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