Crew Preview: How, And How Well, They’ll Defend

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. Continue reading

The Crew’s Moving Pieces + Schelotto

Full credit to Ives Galarcep on both of these…oh, god, I’m such a parasite…right, back to it. Contrary to what I did with the title, let’s go “significant” then “interesting.”

Schelotto appears set to stay put; or, rather, paperwork in transit (the P-1 Visa) points to Schelotto sticking with the Crew through 2008. Then again, that could be called a non-confirmation confirmation: Ives’ source, Crew coach Sigi Schmid, only says Schelotto has “enjoyed his time” in Columbus and that he “hasn’t hasn’t expressed to us that it is what he wants to do” – e.g. he hasn’t said he wants to return to Argentina. I’m just saying marriages have ended in similar circumstances (e.g. “she never told me she wanted to leave.”) So, stay tuned on that, I suppose.

UPDATE: Confirmations that Schelotto will stay in Columbus continue to roll in.  The latest from Ives – via Crew Pres. Mark McCullers – reads a bit more firm and direct than what the reporter got out of Schmid.

The second piece seems more solid and, in some ways, more interesting. Ives (again) also got Schmid to talk about Danny O’Rourke’s future with the Crew, a future that should see him shift to the defensive line to make room for DCU-transfer Brian Carroll in midfield. In related news, it looks like both Chad Marshall and Marcos Gonzalez will return for the Crew. While the latter seems all good, the former – Marshall – strikes me as a complicated case. Ives cites the concussions – a big deal for a defender, obviously – but I get why the Crew is willing to let Marshall chance it: if I’m not mistaken – and I could very well be – Marshall’s brief return in 2007 coincided with the Crew’s best stretch of the season. That said, don’t you go bruisin’ yer brain for the fans, son. They’ll do fine without you.

UPDATE: Crap. I totally forgot to discuss the meat of this move: O’Rourke in defense. Along with Schmid, I see O’Rourke’s essentially combativeness as his greatest asset; that the man looks like an ultimate fighter hardly hurts his cause. And he’s definitely an upgrade to Ezra Hendrickson, who is getting on in years, and, assuming he’s still with the team (yep), Rusty Pierce, who doesn’t seem the player he was in New England. The Crew has a lot of midfield – they had even more before Ned Grabavoy left for San Jose – so moving a guy who plays like a defender to make room for someone with a little more offensive upside makes quite a bit of sense.

DC’s Statement over the Crew

So, my weekend viewing went a little sideways. My original plan had me taking in Red Bull v. LA – and I’m very glad to have stuck with that. The other one-to-two games I expected to watch were Columbus Crew v. DC United (first) and Real Salt Lake v. Chicago Fire (second); I sorta managed the former – by which I mean, I watched it in archived chunks, mainly because I ran across the final score before watching. I caught highlights for Salt Lake v. Chicago – great goal by Cuauthemoc Blanco, by the way (look for it on Youtube…now) – but otherwise blew off. I don’t know that I missed much – I mean, RSL lost…again – while Chicago’s new toys worked as advertised. At the same time, I can’t say New England v. Kansas City was a better game; I’d be surprised, in fact, if it was.

So, with the caveat that I didn’t watch every minute in real time, Columbus versus DC looked like a pretty educational affair. The scoreline flattered DC, if only just: by that I mean, Columbus isn’t significantly worse, but their attack suffers from fairly severe limitations; put in more blunt terms, this team really needs a “go-to” forward. In players like Luciano Emilio and, on Saturday, Fred, DC has those players – and that’s why they won.

It’s not all a wash for the Crew, though. The recent defensive stability of Columbus seems to have left the buidling with Chad Marshall; his replacement, Ezra Hendrickson, struggled all day – and he was almost completely at fault for DC’s insurance goal. I’m not a firm believer in Rusty Pierce, either, and, looking at the line-up, I wonder how much the decision to shift Stephani Miglioranzi into midfield (and I’m assuming this is what happened) hurt the Crew.

For all that, however, the Crew kept the ball about as well as DC and did, for as much of the game as I watched, limit their chances while setting up enough of their own. Those chances weren’t great ones – call the majority of ’em half- or even quarter-chances – but the Crew have enough in defense and midfield to keep DC out of their defensive third. Again, they just don’t have enough to win against a team as good as DC.

DC continues to impress me. Their success is not built on great players – I find DC’s roster good in spots, but overall underwhelming – but on their capacity to play as a team. The movement is crisp and coordinated, they shrink the field to a postage stamp with pressure well up the field, and, when they’re in position, they’ve got the talent to exploit the opportunities. It’s a good formula, one I think has been part of DC’s approach since the Piotr Nowak took over. Whether I’m right or wrong here, one thing is for sure: DC is a team to watch down the stretch. Put another way, I think they’ll be number one again in my rankings at least.