In less than 24 hours, the Columbus Crew’s sixteenth season will begin in earnest. While league play is mercifully almost a month away, the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League have arrived.
Unfortunately for the Crew, the timing of this first game has turned out to be extremely unfortunate. The weather forecast calls for game time temperatures in the high 20s with a 20% chance of freezing rain or sleet. Additionally, several players have picked up injuries in the last four days, throwing considerable doubt into the business of predicting coach Robert Warzycha’s starting lineup.
While speculation about the team’s lineup may be running rampant, the Crew’s opponent is a relative model of stability. Real Salt Lake, 2009 MLS Cup Champion and group winner in last fall’s CONCACAF Champions League, have had to deal with the loss of only one player: forward Robbie Findley. Crew fans will surely be hoping that the trio of players listed on Salt Lake’s injury report as “probable” – Fabian Espindola, Javier Morales, and Alvaro Saborio – will become less so in the wintry conditions at Crew Stadium.
For the home team, a quintet of probable starters have been ruled out or questionable in the last few days. Most notably, goalkeeper William Hesmer has been withdrawn, his best hope a spot on the substitutes bench. In his place will most likely be former Ohio State Buckeye Ray Burse Jr., who played a few dozen games with FC Dallas before being let go in 2009.
Also unavailable are left back Shaun Francis and defensive midfielder Kevin Burns, while midfielders Dilly Duka and Eddie Gaven are both in doubt. While rookie Rich Balchan was likely a starter before these developments, now he is almost certain to see his first action in Columbus colors.
What role he plays is another matter. While he has played mostly in the center of the field (either center back or defensive midfielder) thus far, Balchan does have the flexibility to play wide if needed. The dual need for a left back and holding midfielder, then, may come down to a competition between Josh Gardner as a left back or Cole Grossman as a holding midfielder – with the loser watching Balchan play his position.
Farther up in midfield, the loss of Duka stings for a player who had shined thus far. He is currently described as “questionable” for Tuesday night, leaving the door open for a possible return to midfield by Emilio Renteria. The fate of Eddie Gaven, meanwhile, may depend on whether he can make it to halftime as a starter. Should that prove likely, he may get the nod with the expectation that he last as long as possible before withdrawing. Leandre Griffit waits in the wings, along with any number of rookie midfielders hoping to make a name for themselves.
At forward, the duo of Andres Mendoza and Jeff Cunningham appears to be the presumptive starters, particularly given the possibility of Renteria’s use in midfield. Justin Meram, two-goal hero in the team’s last game against Houston, has an outside shot but is more likely fated for a late-game substitute if the team is behind.
From the tenor of many series previews, the key to advancement will lie in defense. The Crew did not concede a goal at home in CONCACAF play last year, while the Salt Lake back line is also famously stingy. With the prospect of a return leg at altitude in a stadium where they have never won, the Crew must hope to score early, and often. Likewise, the Crew’s defensive corps must hold firm against one of the more potent offenses in Major League Soccer, integrating three newcomers alongside a talented pair of center backs.
Should the Crew prevail, their victory would give the new-look Crew some added self belief and cohesion, while a home loss would leave a nearly insurmountable task next week in the Wasatch Valley.