May 1, 2009 MLS Toronto vs Columbus Crew from Columbus viewpoint (from

Too early to overlook defending champs
Fire's McBride says Crew have been a bit unlucky to start season
05/01/2009 12:05 AM
By Craig Merz / Staff

COLUMBUS - Even as the Columbus Crew dropped to the bottom of the overall MLS standings, at least one opponent says it's too early to overlook the defending MLS Cup winners.

"It's a bit false," Chicago forward Brian McBride said of the Crew's 0-2-4 record.

He added to the Crew's misery last week with an 86th-minute score against his former team that ignited a rally for a 2-2 tie, the third time Columbus lost a late lead at home.

"They've had three games like this. That will change," McBride said.

His belief is rooted in his friendship with Crew head coach Robert Warzycha, a Columbus teammate from 1996-2002. A year later, Warzycha was an assistant with the club in McBride's final season in Columbus before he moved to Fulham of the English Premier League. McBride returned to MLS in August.

"He's got a solid team. I know Robert. He's a very focused guy," he said.

Warzycha was named interim coach for the final 16 games in 2005 and was in the running for the permanent spot that went to Sigi Schmid. Warzycha returned to be being an assistant before being promoted in December when Schmid signed with Seattle.

"The first time around I was hoping he got the job. I know he'll do a great job," McBride said of Warzycha.

Any words of encouragement are welcome to Warzycha at this point, especially from someone of McBride's stature.

"Brian played a long team at my side and he knows my personality and I obviously appreciate that," he said. "He's a very good player. I told everybody before the game and even before the season that he's probably going to play better than last season because he went to preseason with the guys."

Niceties aside, it's been a rough start for the Crew. There's no question the team has played for long stretches like the one that steamrolled through the league at the end of 2008. But somehow points have been lost and the first win remains elusive.

"I wake up at night questioning myself but that doesn't mean the result would be better. It may be worse," he said. "Yes, I question myself a lot.

"Maybe some changes should have been different but that's all speculation. I will say at the moment of the decision I'm trying to help the team, put the best substitution I have on the field to help the team.

"If you look at our games -- I don't want to get in trouble -- the ball sometimes doesn't bounce our way. Put it that way."

He was delicately referring to a red card issued to left back Gino Padula in the Chicago match that the organization felt was unjust. The undermanned Crew didn't have the wherewithal to hold a two-goal advantage and McBride and Co. earned the draw.

Whether things get worse will be determined Saturday at Eastern Conference leader Toronto FC. The Reds were the beneficiary of a Padula own goal in the Crew's home opener on March 28 and the Columbus season has spiraled since.

"What we've stressed is three points at the beginning of the year are as important as three points at the end of the year," defender Danny O'Rourke said. "I don't think anyone in the locker room is getting frustrated. It's a great locker room and great mentality in there."

Yet, there has to be some sense of urgency even though there are 24 matches remaining, captain Frankie Hejduk said. He could be part of a large contingent of Crew players absent at various points this summer for U.S. national team duties. Combined with the team's first foray into the CONCACAF Champions League, it could be a long and tiring summer and fall.

"We could have four, five, six guys gone at a time. You never know," he said. "Any points we get now can be banked for later in the year when we'll be shorthanded. You don't want to be chasing points at the end."

Hejduk's hamstring injury will likely keep him out until the May 9 match vs. Kansas City so the Crew will be minus their usual fullbacks Saturday as well as goalkeeper William Hesmer (left knee sprain) and midfielder Adam Moffat (left hamstring strain). Injuries will also sideline several reserves -- defender Andy Iro (left quad strain), forward Jason Garey (right ankle sprain) and midfielder Corey Elenio (left hamstring strain).

"This match against Toronto is important. It's a tough place to play and if we're able to get a good result there maybe that's the confidence boost we need to carry on in the spring into the summer," forward Alejandro Moreno said. "It's a complicated team to play against. The environment is very helpful to them and the turf is very helpful to them. It really makes the game difficult and cuts out the rhythm. That's something that could affect the game but we need one of those games where we buckle down and put a good effort on the field that we can be proud of."

Andy Gruenebaum will make his second consecutive start in goal. O'Rourke could get the start at left back for Padula while Jed Zayner mans the right side. The tall center back tandem of Chad Marshall and Eric Brunner is expected to remain the same. Emmanuel Ekpo likely will replace Moffat in the central midfield as he did at the start of the season when the Scotsman was recovering from knee surgery. Ekpo will play in front of Brian Carroll.

Eddie Gaven will run the right wing and Robbie Rogers should return from a hamstring injury for his first start in three matches on the opposite flank. Leading scorer Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Moreno will play up top.

Forward Pat Noonan could make his first appearance of the season after recovering from a preseason back injury. Warzycha wanted to get him some minutes against Chicago but Padula's ejection in the 57th minute threw that strategy out the window. Warzycha likes Noonan's experience on artificial turf in his years with New England and Noonan scored at BMO Field Sept. 13 in a 1-1 tie in the Crew's last meeting in the Canadian city.

"The game on turf is a little bit different. The game is going to be fast," Warzycha said. "I'm guessing a lot is not going to happen in front of the goal. The play will be in the middle of the field and we have to be very careful about set pieces."

No matter. The Crew need points.

"It seems like every week we have a critical game," he said. "Last week against Chicago we played the first-place team from our division. Now we play away against the first-place team in our division."

Craig Merz is a contributor to

back to Toronto FC menu