The Columbus Crew have now played four games as they prepare for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against Real Salt Lake. Their first three games were split affairs, with almost two dozen players used in each game. Monday’s fourth game, however, saw coach Robert Warzycha keep his starting lineup largely intact through the first 70 minutes with several players going the entire 90 minutes. This development, combined with a retroactive look back at the first three games, gives fans of the Crew their clearest indication yet of who might be the starting lineup on February 22nd.
Goalkeeper – William Hesmer
The only question in nets has been whether William Hesmer would be ready in time. The veteran, injured in the regular season finale last year, appears to be on track to beat this deadline, having played the entire game against Colorado on Monday. Hesmer’s complete game follows his preseason debut, in which he went 30 minutes against Seattle last Thursday.
Should Hesmer suffer a setback, with Andy Gruenebaum aiming to complete his own return from injury later this season, the Crew’s next best option would appear to be former Ohio State Buckeye (and FC Dallas) goalkeeper Ray Burse. Burse played 45 minutes in each of the team’s first three scrimmages, splitting time with Caleb Patterson-Sewell and Alex Riggs.
Defense – Sebastian Miranda, Chad Marshall, Shaun Francis and ???
Three of the team’s four defensive positions appear to be settled, with newcomer Sebastian Miranda joining veteran Chad Marshall and second-year Jamaican international Shaun Francis in starting every game thus far.
The second central position appears to still be an unsettled question, however. Andy Iro enjoyed a breakout season in 2010, winning this spot from incumbent Eric Brunner (who has since been taken in last December’s expansion draft). Thus far in preseason, however, Iro has faced competition from rookie Rich Balchan, who has drawn solid reviews while playing a variety of positions.
On Monday, Balchan was given the start alongside Marshall, with Andy Iro playing the second half. It may be reading too much into the result to note that both Rapids goals were scored with Iro on the field, but the two players have each played half the team’s minutes thus far – giving Robert Warzycha his first selection headache of 2011.
Midfield – Dilly Duka, Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo, and Kevin Burns?
Much like Rich Balchan, second-year midfielder Dilly Duka has been singled out for praise by some observers in Arizona for his play thus far. The league’s commentators during Monday’s scrimmage indicated that Duka’s play on the left flank was one of the bright spots for the Crew, perhaps adding to the evidence that has led Warzycha to start Duka in every game thus far.
Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo are the other attacking options who have been used most often. Ekpo, like Duka, has started each game in the preseason, while Rogers has played just as many minutes – starting the last three games after playing the second half in the team’s opener against Kansas City.
The question mark in this formation would seem to be at defensive midfield, where Kevin Burns has played most often but not exclusively. 31-year-old midfielder Dejan Rusmir seemed to start in this position during the team’s first game, while Rich Balchan was preferred in the second game.
Balchan, who has been compared to Danny O’Rourke in his ability to play every position in the defensive half of the field, may end up being moved to the holding midfield position should he lose out to Andy Iro in the center of the team’s defense.
Two names who appear to be left out in this scenario are Eddie Gaven and Leandre Griffit. Gaven, who started the first game and played 44 minutes in the second, has not appeared in the last two games. His status for the opener was cast into doubt when he had to be substituted in the game against Vancouver with an ankle injury. “Hopefully it’s nothing serious,” said Warzycha at the time to the Columbus Dispatch, but it is somewhat worrying that last year’s most productive midfielder (5 goals, 5 assists) has not been able to play more often.
Should Gaven regain fitness, it is an open question as to which player he would displace. The only game in which Gaven did start saw Robbie Rogers begin on the bench, but the two players’ natural positions are on opposite flanks.
Leandre Griffit played in the second half of the first three games, but was an unused substitute against Colorado. Dejan Rusmir and draft pick Cole Grossman both came on in the 72nd minute as the coaching staff pulled Kevin Burns and Emmanuel Ekpo.
Forward – Andres Mendoza and ???
Mendoza, like Hesmer, did not appear in the first two games. Since recovering from an illness, however, the forward scored his first goal against Seattle and was mentioned frequently in the gamecast against Colorado.
The final lineup question lies in who will be the Peruvian’s strike partner. Emilio Renteria, Jeff Cunningham, and rookie Justin Meram have all seen significant time thus far. Another rookie, Bernardo Anor, played the second half of several games but was unused against Colorado.
Looking purely at the record of who has played most often, Cunningham appears to have the inside track in the race to February 22nd. The wily veteran has played more minutes than any other forward, and has played alongside each of the other forward candidates. Emilio Renteria, meanwhile, did not play at all against Colorado while Justin Meram has been frequently used, but rarely started.