Yes, B&RU has recently devoted a lot of time to the Columbus Crew, but that was borne of my enthusiasm for the CONCACAF Champions League. There's still the not-so-small matter of dealing with the two-time defending Supporters Shield winners in our conference. I don't know about all United fans, but in my mind, we should be the team to beat in the East rather than the team that, as the chant goes, we all laugh at.
Another team that we'll have to contend with is the well-supported mess that is Toronto FC. While they've had trouble putting a good product on the field, there's no doubt that the fans up north are legit. Will they finally get a team worth all the noise they make? For a look at both teams competing for the Trillium Cup, go past the jump.COLUMBUS CREW
Arrivals: Sergio Herrera, Dilly Duka, Bright Dike, Kwaku Nyamekye, Othaniel Yanez, Shaun Francis
Departures: Alejandro Moreno
It's been pretty much as quiet an offseason as you'll ever see in MLS at Crew Stadium, and why not? Robert Warzycha had a superbly balanced team in 2009, and despite rumors about Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Robbie Rogers leaving, the "Polish Rifle" has only one player to replace
Now, Moreno did bring a lot to the table in the Crew's 4231 system (toiling endlessly and enduring plenty of fouls as a lone forward), but let's not pretend he's something he isn't. Moreno is entirely replaceable, and in fact might not have had a starting job if Philly hadn't taken him in the expansion draft. The reason for that wasn't that Moreno had regressed as a player; rather, it is the continued emergence of the powerful, aggressive, and all around difficult-to-deal-with Steven Lenhart as a striker. Drafted as a no-name out of Azusa Pacific (Who?), Lenhart has proven to be a constant irritant to any defense he's up against. This is a classic example of a player making it impossible to keep him out of the lineup. As much as Moreno works and offers a counterpoint to Schelotto's class, Lenhart is more of a problem for opposing defenses (and still puts in the work needed to play up top for Columbus).
So what else does Columbus have? A capable keeper, defensive depth (consider the fact that, on Tuesday, they held Toluca to just 2 real chances despite missing Chad Marshall, Frankie Hejduk, and Jed Zayner, who is the best option to replace Hejduk at right back), a tough set of holding midfielders, fast wingers that move intelligently, and Schelotto (who, at the very worst, is among MLS's best 5 players). This team can replace defenders with guys like Zayner, Danny O'Rourke, and Andy Iro. They have a promising young defensive midfielder in Kevin Burns who barely sees the field. Emmanuel Ekpo, who would start on most MLS teams, is their third-choice winger. Oh, and if Lenhart is unavailable, they've got a poacher like Jason Garey to call in (not to mention Herrera, who was signed on loan from Deportivo Cali, the same club that produced guys like Fredy Montero, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Jair Benitez).
In short, Columbus is loaded and should once again be a real contender for an MLS Cup championship. However, if they have one weakness, it's located on the bench. Warzycha was a fine player, and Sigi Schmid seemed happy with him as an assistant. However, he's so far shown himself as a coach that overthinks situations and ignores the obvious solution. As most MLS fans know, Warzycha left out Schelotto in their opening playoff game against RSL, a game that RSL won 1-0 on a late goal. Warzycha explained the move as having two intentions: To motivate Schelotto, who had not been scoring or assisting as regularly down the stretch as he had been earlier, and to offer a more direct, hard-working overall approach in an away game.
There are times where these would be reasonable sentiments, but not in MLS. If you have a player like Schelotto, and he's fit to play, you really have no choice but to play him at all times. You find a way to incorporate him, and if he doesn't run enough, you make sure the rest of your players are extra-motivated to make up for it. Warzycha may report to Schelotto's play in the second leg as evidence that his strategy worked, but he's missing the forest for the trees. Columbus could have gone to Rio Tinto Stadium and grabbed a draw or even a win, and not needed Schelotto to score twice early in the game. Their whole approach could have been different if they'd have not been so conservative in the first leg.
If Crew fans thought that Warzycha's failure to see the forest for the trees was a one-off eccentricity, they probably lost that notion upon seeing the positional wandering of Ekpo. The Nigerian Olympian is clearly a born winger, yet spent a good chunk of 2009 being deployed as a central midfielder. In the 2010 preseason, he's been used as a forward (which, in my previous Crew post, I clearly did not think was a good idea).
This is yet another example of Warzycha overthinking what is a simple situation. The easy solution here is to tell Ekpo, Eddie Gaven, and Robbie Rogers that they're competing for 2 starting spots. Since Gaven (and Rogers, actually) can play on both wings, any combination will work. You have the luxury of having three high-end MLS wingers; this should make them even better than they would be normally. Instead, Warzycha tries to ram a square peg into a round hole by shoehorning Ekpo into a role elsewhere. Columbus would be much more dangerous deploying their players in their natural positions, and then using whoever the third winger is as an every-game sub. Imagine how difficult it would be to cope with the speed of Rogers, or the unpredictable movements of Gaven, and then having to change up to handle Ekpo's athleticism and occasional brilliance (see the Crew's opening goal against Toluca).
In summary, Columbus should be an MLS Cup contender. They'll be as good as Warzycha's strange tactical decisions take them; if he keeps things simple, Columbus will be a difficult mountain to climb for anyone. If not, you just have to hope that you get lucky and face them on the night that they bench Marshall because Warzycha thinks they need a speedier center back pairing.
Arrivals: Jacob Peterson, Ty Harden, Zac Herold, Nane Joseph
Departures: Carl Robinson, Amado Guevara, Pablo Vitti, Lesly Fellinga
The big news out of Toronto is that Preki has been hired as their head coach. Having seen Preki's Chivas USA sides many times, I am expecting TFC to prioritize being aggressive and hard to score on over any other aspect of the game. That shouldn't solely paint them as a team only good at destruction; Preki's teams love to keep the ball. However, they take few risks, and if any major players are injured, you can expect them to look to grind out 1-0 results at home and 0-0 draws away.
Normally, I'd say that's a negative step for any MLS team. However, TFC's struggles with finishing games off and with defending in general are obvious to anyone that has seen them a few times. Preki's brand of soccer may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I'm going to guess that TFC's rabid supporters will accept any kind of soccer that ends with a playoff spot.
The real question here is whether Preki has fixed Toronto's major flaws. In terms of personnel, he definitely has not. Toronto's moves thus far are two MLS-experienced acquisitions (both Rapids rejects, which is pretty much the worst thing to be as an MLS veteran), a 17 year old, and a 4th round draft pick. They have plenty of pots boiling (especially Uganda winger Vincent Kayizzi, who has been in TFC's camp throughout preseason and is scoring regularly in friendlies), but at this point their roster is arguably worse than it was last year. Toronto has quality midfielders (Julian De Guzman, Sam Cronin, and Dwayne De Rosario...assuming DeRo isn't deployed as a withdrawn forward, which is a distinct possibility), but lacks a competent finisher and has just one good center back (Nana Attakora). This was a seriously broken roster last year that was being propped up by its midfield; thus far, they've made no moves to actually improve anything in their starting lineup.
That said, it might not have been different players that were needed. Preki has extensive experience getting decent results out of a low-end group of players; Chivas played the past 2 seasons with an injury list as lengthy as anything by Tolstoy, and yet were regularly a difficult opponent for anyone. Preki may still have a poor group of defenders, but his system will shield that flimsy back four by fighting for every inch of the field and not turning the ball over easily. Expect to regularly see TFC come out in a lineup something like this:
Hardly intimidating, but Chivas jumped way out ahead of the pack in the early going last season with a lesser team. Anyone with De Rosario, De Guzman, Cronin, and some hard workers will be a tough out given the right formation and the right approach. TFC is probably going to pride itself on being tough to beat (where have United fans heard that before?) and play simple, unadventurous soccer. Few will be inspired, but this will no longer the the Toronto side we expect to hang 3 or 4 goals on when they visit RFK. Being a frustrating opponent may not win them friends, but I doubt anyone at BMO Field will care too much if they're hosting a playoff game in 25 degree temperatures.