For all the frustrations of the past season – missing the playoffs again, struggling offensively at the wrong time, etc. – I thought the Columbus Crew fielded a pretty solid defense in 2007. It turns out, however, the 44 goals they surrendered tied them for sixth in goals-against; middle of the pack sounds all right, until one considers 49 goals allowed set the mark for league-worst (Go Toronto FC!). So…remind me again, what exactly went right last season?
I kid. Middle of the pack is middle of the pack, so things could have gone worse. But with the Crew opening 2008 with one high-profile departure from the defense, the possibility things could go worse this year lurks. Marcos Gonzalez, rated by a solid majority as the Crew’s best defender, returned in the off-season to his native Chile. His immediate replacement – Andy Iro – is a first-year pro, something to watch no matter how his resumé reads. A clutch of second-year pros – Ryan Junge, Jed Zayner, and Andrew Peterson – will vie with Iro for that opening in central defense, as might midfield players like Danny O’Rourke, if some reports are to be believed (can’t find said reports; you’ll have to take my word for it…or just not believe me).
Given all that, how will the Crew’s defense fare in 2008? By way of an answer, I’ve named the players on the roster whose first job amounts to either defending the Crew’s goal directly or breaking up the opposition’s forays in midfield. I confess I’m not totally up-to-date on how Sigi Schmid will line up his team – and that’s whether in terms of formation or personnel – as such, what unfolds below amounts to a best guess as to what Schmid will do and the quality he has at his disposal.
Goalkeepers: Will Hesmer, Andy Gruenebaum, Kenny Schoeni
Defenders: Leonard Griffin (D), Frankie Hejduk (D), Ezra Hendrickson (D), Andy Iro (D), Ryan Junge (D), Chad Marshall (D), Andrew Peterson (D), Jed Zayner (D)
Defensive Midfielders/Occasional Defenders*: Danny O’Rourke (M, or is it D? Again, I’ve heard talk), Stefani Miglioranzi (M/D), Brian Carroll (M), Duncan Oughton (M), Adam Moffat (M)?
* Forgive my ignorance of everyone’s precise roles, especially that last fella. I’ll have this down cold by five games into the season, I swear.
How They’ll Fit Together
Assuming Schmid goes 4-4-2, I’m guessing he’ll field something like this (from left-to-right):
Defense: Miglioranzi – Marshall – O’Rourke – Hejduk
Defensive Midfield: Carroll
Assuming a three-man backline, I’m guessing something like this:
Defense: Miglioranzi/Padula* – Marshall – Hejduk
Defensive Midfield: Carroll – Oughton/O’Rourke/Moffat/Miglioranzi*
I’ll start by confessing that all the second-year pros sit in a personal blind-spot; I know too little about them to place them where they’ll likely line up. That said, I’m having trouble seeing Iro start right away based mainly on what I’ve read about his skills. We’ll see what happens as the season wears on.
*Another potential wrinkle in all this: the Crew securing the services of Gino Padula, a target of theirs from what I’ve read. As I understand it, Padula is a left back and, judging by the nature of the pursuit and where he’s played (French Ligue Deux), a pretty good one. So, if he comes, I’m guessing he’ll bump Miglioranzi up the field, or off of it, on most occasions.
For what it’s worth, I think I’d go with the four I’ve named with Carroll up top if I were Schmid. They’ll have a competent ‘keeper behind them in Hesmer and a competent back up in Gruenebaum, though I wouldn’t really rate either of ‘keeper that highly.
How They’ll Work (I Think)
If you’re a Crew fan looking for a silver lining in all this, I’d point to what looks like pretty solid competition for spots. My total ignorance of those second-year defenders doesn’t mean none of them are ready to roll (read: start and play well). I’ve read decent enough things about (I think) Junge to think he might press the familiar names; after him, who knows? That said, either starting set-up I’ve listed above should fare well enough; which is to say, I’m not all that worried about the Crew defensively. They won’t be the best, but they won’t be the worst either. For all I know, they could improve on last year’s performance. Why?
I rate O’Rourke pretty highly as a disrupter, even from within a back four. The real rub in all this: Marshall staying healthy/concussion-free. With Gonzalez gone, Marshall counts as the veteran, stabilizing presence – unless, that is, the Crew hopes to squeeze another year out of Hendrickson. And I think Marshall is up to filling the role, based on the mini-Renaissance I believe they enjoyed last year when he briefly returned to action. If he goes down, it’s between the rookies and second-year pros, Hendrickson, and or a converted midfielder like O’Rourke taking to the central defender role without cover. Now, all that could work out…but you wouldn’t really want to rely on it, would ya?
After that, Hejduk is Hejduk: you’ll get energy at the very least out of him. And Miglioranzi looked pretty comfortable at left-back the few times I saw him there last year. Overall, this isn’t a bad group and, referring back to the silver lining, it could get even better. Add Carroll in the distributor role and the potential for the whole defensive side to not only defend, but to kick-start the attack, seems to improve.
Or maybe it’s just me.