On March 19, the Columbus Crew dejectedly walked out of RFK Stadium in Washington on the wrong side of a 3-1 game. The team allowed two Charlie Davies goals (one a penalty kick) and looked outclassed, out played, and in for a long season. The result came after they were shown the door from the CONCACAF Champions League by losing 4-1 to Real Salt Lake. After an offseason where the team jettisoned many of its bigger named players to make room in the salary cap and committed to a rebuilding effort, the team looked destined for a long, long season.
A month later, Columbus sits in a playoff spot. The team has not allowed a goal since the second Davies’ goal and this weekend held the highest-scoring team in MLS to no goals. While not an offensive juggernaut, the team is scoring enough to get results. So are the Crew back to their normal spot near the top of the Eastern Conference for good, or is this an illusion that will wilt away in the summer months? The answer is, of course, not that simple.
At first glance the schedule up to this point for the Crew has been daunting, but upon closer examination looks to have been quite easy. After the trip to DC, the Crew hosted the Red Bulls and Dallas, two 2010 playoff teams and teams expected to compete for an MLS Cup this season. But the Crew played New York during an international break and essentially forced a draw with a “B” team, while Dallas has struggled mightily this season and is still sorting out personnel issues. The trip to Chivas led to a scoreless draw, not surprising how bad Chivas is, and while Sporting Kansas City is promising, they have a horrendous defense to go with a great offense. So the schedule has not been a good guidepost to the season so far, except to say the Crew don’t lose to bad teams.
One constant this season has been the defense, which should not be a surprise considering that was one area the team didn’t unload their star power. MLS star Chad Marshall was retained and paired with a number of new players who have excelled to this point. Julius James was picked up off the smoldering heap that was DC United’s 2010 backline and has seen a career resurgence. Rookie Rich Balchan has started all five games and played extremely well. In net, Will Hesmer has played very well after some uncertainty this offseason as to who would be the starter due to injuries. The team has not allowed a goal in four matches, a team record and an incredibly accomplishment. In their last match, Dilly Duka had as many shots on goal (2) as all of the Kansas City players combined.
Another reason for their positive play has been Robbie Rogers, their one consistent offensive threat. The rift that existed between Rogers and head coach Robert Warzycha has seemingly been resolved; the Crew team on the pitch in DC looked lost and without a real offensive threat until Rogers stepped on the pitch. So far this year Rogers has scored as many goals (2) as he has the past two seasons.
The upcoming schedule also should be a reason for optimism among Columbus fans. This weekend, they visit a Toronto team in flux then host the expansion Whitecaps and struggling Sounders (although the Sounders may be finally turning their season around). Things get tough with back-to-back trips to San Jose and Portland, but they end May by hosting Chivas. Conceivably, the Crew should pick up at least 12 points through the end of May.
But the reason why Rogers has been so good for the Columbus offense is that the play of the Crew forwards and midfield have been terrible. Consider that Portland scored as many goals in its home opener as the Crew have scored this season, and that two of those goals came from penalties. Eddie Gaven has been ok but not really good up front, and while it is still early Andres Mendoza has been a disappointment. Jeff Cunningham looks his age and fails to convert quality chances.
So can the Crew continue this run and qualify for the playoffs? In an Eastern Conference with few clear favorites, it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to grab a top three spot if their defense continues to play well. But for this team to challenge New York for first or even challenge a resurgent Philadelphia or DC, they need to find more consistent offense. Without a goal scorer either emerging or being acquired this summer, Columbus could be on the outside looking in this September.