The Columbus Crew exited the major league soccer playoffs Thursday to Real Salt Lake. After winning the Supporter Shield for best record at the end of the regular season the reigning MLS champions lost and away match 0-1, a home match 3-2 and 4-2 on aggregate goals for the playoff series. Now that the sting has edged I feel able to comment on it.
My first thought is that I hate the first round of the MLS playoff system. The team with the best record plays away first and then comes back home for one game. Two games where the best team gets a home field advantage by playing the last game of the two games at home. To me that gives the advantage to the lesser record team because the better record team will be more likely to play defensively for a tie to take the series back home for the win or play defensively to not give up too many goals to take back home and score more goals. If the lesser team gets more goals in the first game then they hold a distinct advantage in game two because the better record team must score one more goal than they did leaving the lesser team to play a clogged defense and counter attack game. This is a moot point since the Crew lost both games. So what happened?
There are lots of opinions on what happened but I think it all boils down to one word: inconsistency.
First there was the inconsistent lineup due to injuries to key players like Schelotto, Hesmer and Marshall. Brunner, Iro, Zayner and O'Rourke stepped up with admirable performances in place of Chad Marshall. Problems with injuries and players not being at full performance complicated mid to late season matches that also included Open Cup and Champions League games. There were also games where players were called up to national teams causing complications in starting lineups.
Second, inconsistent performances. There are a lot of names in this list: Rogers, Hejduk, Gaven, Hesmer, Moreno, and even Schelotto in some ways. Defender Chad Marshall outperformed Moreno, Garey and Lenhart in point production. Moreno spent more time acting than scoring. He looked dangerous one time, the first game he came back from injury. Rogers had one goal in 1,700 minutes playing for the Crew.
Third, inconsistent coaching. Robert Warzycha took over the championship team from 2008 from Sigi Schmid. Some games made him look like a genius but in reality we got lucky. Revolving line-ups were forced by injuries, suspensions, and the introduction of Champions League play. They were also made by Warzycha. The 2008 Crew marched into the playoffs with the starting eleven players they were going to field the entire playoffs. Schelotto did not play the first game of the playoffs leading to questions about the team and the coaching staff.
So where does the Crew go from here?
Warzycha and the coaching staff need to explain their position but should also keep their jobs going forward to next season. There are people calling for Warzycha to be let go but who do we replace him with? Schelotto? If not Schelotto then who do we replace him with and who would we be able to afford?
Goalkeeping and defense has some interesting aspects to it. Hesmer is likely not going anywhere and stays in goal. Gruenebaum will likely be kept as a more than capable backup unless his trade value dictates otherwise. Marshall and O'Rourke were the central defense last season and they took us to a championship. Eric Brunner stepped up this season in central defense while Chad Marshall was injured and should be kept as a key part of the future. Unfortunately that leaves O'Rourke, a strong player out of luck and looking for a position. Gino Padula was just as strong this season as last so O'Rourke cannot occupy his position. On the right side, Crew heart and soul Frankie Hejduk began to show his age especially in the playoffs. Jed Zayner played adequately on the right side when Hejduk was out with injury or the national team and should probably, and unfortunately for Hejduk get the start in 2010 on the right side. This still leaves a strong player, O'Rourke, looking for a position. It also leaves international Andy Iro (England) on the bench and given Iro's 2009 performance was both good and slightly less than adequate he will be retained unless there is an opportunity to obtain better players by trading him.
The 2009 midfield was inconsistent due to injuries, national team call-ups, and coaching. The only consistent player was Brian Carroll who should be retained. Guillermo Barros Schelotto was the offense this season which is only good if other players are also contributing, which they were not. O'Rourke was used as a defensive midfielder this season but Adam Moffat returned in 2009 with both good and sub-adequate performances (again, inconsistency). On the outside Ekpo led the team with assists and had some key goals, Rogers had one fewer goals and assists than Ekpo with fewer minutes and games played. Eddie Gaven has six goals but no assists. This is an adequate contribution but leads to questions regarding who to start and keep for 2010. Crew fan favorite Duncan Oughton remained with the team in 2090 with limited action and as can be kept with the team as long as it is feasible to do so. The remaining midfield did not spend much time on the field and will likely end up as inconsequential players that can be waived, traded or kept.
The forward spots will likely endure the most scrutiny this season and for good reason. The bash brothers, Lenhart and Garey, showed a couple games of promise and dominance followed by barely adequate performances. This is my personal opinion but neither forward has provided a franchise worthy performance. Alejandro Moreno produced a couple game winning goals this season and spent time injured but he has earned a reputation as a flopper and most if not all referees in the league are not buying his acting. Since he is not scoring a large number of goals to offset this he becomes a liability and his position in 2010 will likely be as a bench player or not with the Crew at all. Emilio Renteria came aboard mid-season and had equal portions of bad and good in his performances. Both Moreno and Renteria are from Argentina and I would probably favor the younger Renteria going forward.
If I were asked to name the priorities for the 2010 season they would be: retain Schelotto for one more season as a player, acquire Schelotto's replacement so he can work alongside Guillermo and develop to lead the team. I do not think Gaven, Rogers, Ekpo, Moffat or any of the developmental players are those players so the Crew need to identify someone to fill that role from another MLS team or from another league. Next would be to retain Marshall, Hesmer, Carroll and Padula as they are all key players in the Crew roster. The next thing the Crew needs is a forward capable of playing with Schelotto (and his successor) and scoring a bucket load of goals. Ekpo, Brunner, O'Rourke and Zayner are young and show promise and value for the Crew future. Rogers and Gaven are both young but are both question marks (in my opinion) as both have the potential to create great value but have slumped during the 2010 season. Hejduk and Moreno should have their roles relegated. Last, Warzycha should be retained as coach unless an obvious and adequate replacement is both available and feasible for the organization.