March 27, 2009 MLS Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC pregame story (from MLSnet.com Staff)
Crew eager to begin home schedule
Columbus hosts Toronto FC in first home game since East final
By Craig Merz / MLSnet.com Staff
COLUMBUS -- The last time Columbus fans saw their team in Crew Stadium, on Nov. 13, coach Sigi Schmid was serenading the Nordecke supporters' section in the northeast corner and captain Frankie Hejduk was proudly carrying the Eastern Conference trophy after beating Chicago. Ten days later the Columbus Crew captured the ultimate prize by winning the MLS Cup on a sunny afternoon in Carson, Calif.
As the Crew prepare for their home opener Saturday against Toronto FC -- after tying 1-1 at Houston in their first match -- Schmid is long gone for the greener surroundings of Seattle and Hejduk is one of three Crew players who will be missing because of national team duty.
Yet, everything is pretty much status quo. Nearly the entire senior roster except for starting midfielder Brad Evans and reserves Stefani Miglioranzi and Ezra Hendrickson return and a familiar face is once again in charge.
Former Crew player Robert Warzycha is now the head coach. He had been an assistant since retiring after the 2002 season except for the final 16 matches of 2005 when he led the Crew to a 7-6-3 record as an interim coach.
Warzycha knows all about the numerous media events and public festivities the team must endure in the days leading to the home opener, but he has no complaints.
"It's a good thing we have recognition here in town and the players are very popular and the team seems like it is getting more popular," he said. "If you are successful and you win a championship that's what happens. You have to learn how to deal with it."
The Crew are 2-0-2 in the past four home openers, including a 2-0 win against Toronto last year.
"We've got a veteran team and this is the usual run of the mill," technical director Brian Bliss said. "The one week leading up to the home opener you get more media events, more media coverage and more distractions in terms of where the guys have to be in the evening. It didn't affect us last year. I don't think it will affect us this year."
Of more concern is finding a suitable starting lineup. In addition to Hejduk's absence to play for the United States in a World Cup qualifier, starting forward Alejandro Moreno (Venezuela) and reserve midfielder Duncan Oughton (New Zealand) are gone this weekend for international matches and all three are questionable for the April 2 match at Real Salt Lake.
Then there are the injuries. Left-side midfielder Robbie Rogers, a 2008 Best XI selection, could be held out Saturday because of a bad hamstring that forced him to the bench after 46 minutes at Houston. Also, midfielder Adam Moffat is still recovering from knee surgery 10 months ago and could see his first game action Sunday in a reserve match while forward Pat Noonan is out due to a bad back.
Warzycha has worked with several combinations in practice this week. He could start rookie Alex Grendi or second-year Cory Elenio on the left flank or move center back Danny O'Rourke to the center midfield and have Emmanuel Ekpo slide over from there to the left. That would put Andy Iro in the middle with Chad Marshall and give Jed Zayner the start in Hejduk's right back spot.
Or less disruptive would be to have O'Rourke at right defense with Iro in the middle and either Grendi or Elenio wide left.
"The fact that (Warzycha) has three or four different ways he can go is a blessing," said O'Rourke. "It shows how deep are team is. I'm sure we'll be fine whichever way he goes."
Either Jason Garey, who had the first assist Saturday on the tying goal by Schelotto, or Steven Lenhart will start up top for Moreno.
Garey saw just 128 minutes of MLS action last season but still managed to score three goals in his third season with the Crew. The fact that Warzycha used him a substitute last week gives him hope that the coaching change will mean better days for Garey.
"This is my fourth year but the past two years I've hardly played at all," he said. "It's a new opportunity, a new coach. There's a new attitude around here. I'm trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get.
"Bobby talked to me and told me I would get a chance to show what I could do in preseason. I'm trying to do as much as I can to show the trust he had in me and also to (president) Mark McCullers and Brian Bliss for keeping me around," he continued. "It's reassuring to be in the mix. The past couple of years I haven't been."
He said while there are only subtle changes in tactics under Warzycha the team is still different than the one that earned the Supporters' Shield and the club's first MLS Cup last year.
"We have the same nucleus together. The majority of the team was here last year and a lot of us have been here two or three years," Garey said. "It's a little more confidence than we had at the beginning of last season before we started our run."
Garey is eager to play in Crew Stadium again.
"The home opener is a big part of the year for us. We want to put on a good show like we did last year when Toronto came to town," he said.
The Crew were 11-2-2 at home in the regular season and have 9-0-2 streak there (including the playoffs) since June 7 with eight consecutive home wins.
"That's a great record," said Garey. "We're trying to build on that and make our fans happy and make it a fun place to come so the crowds keep getting bigger. With the fans we have all over the stadium, not just in the corner, it makes it uncomfortable for visiting teams."
McCullers said championship signage will be unveiled in the stadium Saturday but the ring ceremony for the players will likely be April 25 vs. Chicago or May 9 against Kansas City. The latter will also be the match to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of Crew Stadium, which had its first game May 15, 1999.
Craig Merz is a contributor to MLSnet.com.
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