Crew's strong attack earns spot among MLS elite
2009 record and finish: 13-7-10 (first in Eastern Conference, lost in conference semi-finals, Supporters Shield winners)
Key additions: F Sergio Herrera, M/F Dilly Duka, M Othaniel Yanez, D Shaun Francis
Key losses: F Alejandro Moreno
Key questions facing this team:
1. Can Columbus banish the memory of last year's playoff collapse?
While there have been bigger upsets in MLS playoff history, the Crew's ouster at the hands of Real Salt Lake was still a shocker, especially after Columbus had taken a 2-1 aggregate lead early in the second leg. At that point the unthinkable happened, as RSL reeled off three unanswered goals to take the series, thus ousting the defending champs.
So will the players be weighed down by a playoff hangover? Not likely. The fact Columbus has already won an MLS Cup will prevent too much pressure from building up. The depth and talent accumulated by the Crew over the years also should give them confidence to simply tee things up again and make another run.
The same might not be true for head coach Robert Warzycha. The Pole endured some heavy criticism after he opted to sit Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno in the first playoff game. And even though Warzycha did plenty right last season in leading the team to its second consecutive Supporters Shield, his decisions this term will no doubt come under even closer scrutiny.
2. Can Schelotto continue to weave his magic?
The Argentine enters his 20th year of professional soccer, and from all appearances, his considerable skill in the attacking third remains intact. Schelotto hit net 12 times in 2009 and did what he could to rally his side in the playoffs, scoring twice in the second leg.
Yet with Schelotto set to turn 37 in April, the question of how long he can operate at a high level has to be raised. It's worth noting that in 2009, he scored just two regular-season goals after June 14 while battling a hamstring injury. And though he looked his usual self in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Mexican side Toluca last week, it will be interesting to see if Schelotto can hold up physically and sustain his form over the course of the whole season.
3. Which one of the team's forwards will step up to partner Schelotto?
With Moreno now the property of expansion Philadelphia, the Crew is left with a group of forwards -- outside of Schelotto, of course -- that is relatively light in MLS experience. With four years of service, Jason Garey has been around the longest, but he's never been able to move beyond bit-part status. Steven Lenhart has accumulated 40 league appearances in two seasons, yet only 13 of those are starts. Emilio Renteria made just five league appearances after arriving in the middle of last season, and Sergio Herrera is set to begin his inaugural campaign in MLS. The latter two performers do have extensive experience in South America, but there is always a settling-in process for foreign players.
Based on the Crew's play in the CCL, Lenhart looks to be the frontrunner. He delivered two razor-sharp finishes in the first leg, and, while he didn't help his team's cause in the second game by getting ejected, his hold-up play looks to be a good complement to the forays of Schelotto.
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Biggest X factor: Robbie Rogers
Rogers is widely regarded as one of the top young attacking talents in MLS, with his pace and dribbling ability often tormenting opposition defenders. Yet he contributed just a solitary goal along with five assists in 2009, a significant drop from the six goals and three assists he tallied in 2008. Part of this dip can be attributed to national team commitments, and, given the rather minimal protection attacking players in MLS receive from referees, Rogers was often subjected to some brutal challenges from opponents.
But Rogers will need to find a way to better cope with such tactics this season. Though Columbus possesses a varied attack, the Crew are a much better side when Rogers is in full flight.
Another player that falls in the X factor category is midfielder Adam Moffat. The Crew missed the box-to-box running of Brad Evans last season, and the squad's hope is that the Scot can fill that role. Moffat missed most of 2008 with a torn ACL in his left knee, and a nagging hamstring injury limited his involvement last season. Moffat is now healthy, and if he stays that way his play on both sides of the ball could benefit Columbus' talented midfield.
Breakout player to watch: Steven Lenhart
When Lenhart first broke into the league, one opposition manager derisively referred to him as "the checking line." But anyone who saw Lenhart's two goals against Toluca will vouch for the fact there is skill as well as grit in his game.
Last season, Lenhart watched his playing time steadily increase, and there were times toward the end of the campaign when he was preferred to usual starter Moreno. With Moreno now gone, the target forward spot is Lenhart's to lose. With that challenge comes increased demands, namely delivering consistent performances over the course of a whole season, yet Lenhart seems primed to do just that.
No team is perfect, but based on its history and talent level, Columbus appears to be a side with few weaknesses. For that reason they have to be considered among the favorites to win the MLS Cup come November.
Foremost among the Crew's strengths is depth. The impulse is to think that a player such as Schelotto is indispensable, yet the Crew won every one of the six games he missed last year. Clearly, Warzycha & Co. would prefer to have the Argentine on the field, but the team has shown it can manage just fine without him.
The team's balance from front to back is also exceptional. Reigning Defender of the Year Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke lead the back line, with Frankie Hejduk and Gino Padula holding down the fullback spots. In midfield, Moffat and Brian Carroll will help set the table for the likes of Rogers, Schelotto and Eddie Gaven to do damage in the attacking half.
The recent history of teams participating in CONCACAF competitions shows they tend to struggle to start the league season. But Columbus stumbled out of the box with a 0-4-2 mark last year and still turned things around. A similar stumble this time won't be fatal.
So what could waylay the Crew? Injuries are always a threat, and Warzycha will need to make sure any lingering upset over his playoff decisions is dealt with quickly. Yet given how strong the squad is in all areas, expect Columbus to maintain its status among the league's elite.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.