The last team that Sigi Schmid won the MLS Cup comes to town again on Saturday. The Columbus Crew finally look a lot different than they did in that era, and there could be as few as four players on the pitch that he coached before leaving for the Seattle Sounders. Current coach Robert Warzycha has managed to both rebuild and win (1st in East, 4th overall by PPM). But the style is fairly similar.
In our quest to get an expert's opinion on the state of the Crew we leave the confines of SB Nation and visit Massive Report. Matt Bernhardt answers three questions touching on a strong defense, Eddie Gaven who is probably the youngest veteran in the League and former USL Sounder Josh Gardner.
SaH: What has been the power behind the Crew's very strong defense? It seems to be the primary reason why they've moved to the top of the East.
MR: The Crew's defense has been significantly rebuilt this year, with only two returning starters: Chad Marshall and William Hesmer. Both players have continued to display the form that has seen them vie for all-league honors, and left Crew fans wondering what else Marshall needs to do to get a call-up to the national team.
While these two have been great, the newcomers have been revelations - and are probably the real reason the Crew's defense has been so stingy. Marshall and Hesmer will give any team a fighting chance, but when their fellow defenders don't need frequent bailouts you have a great chance at shutting down almost any opponent.
Sebastian Miranda has rarely put a foot wrong at right back, locking down a flank where Frankie Hejduk had started to fray at the edges. While no player has emerged as the emotional leader that Hejduk was, Miranda's challenges don't leave Crew fans glancing nervously at the referee. Partnering Marshall in the center is Julius James, who may prove to be the best partner yet found for the captain. Columbus has been fortunate to have stability each year in the defense, but each year has found a new partner for Marshall (O'Rourke in '08, Brunner in '09 and Iro last year). James is much more assured on the ball than any of these, and has speed to cover when the left back gets beaten. His problem is that he is almost too confident in his skills, and has almost been burned several times in very bad positions. His passing accuracy has also been a great benefit in starting the attack.
At left back is the only place there has been significant turnover, but each time the Crew has done better than expected. Balchan was having a season that would have put him in the conversation for rookie of the year before he was injured, and Josh Gardner has filled in capably since then. Gardner's ability to get forward in attack has put the coaches in a bind when Balchan or Francis return to health, and may result in Balchan being used more as a defensive midfielder.
For this weekend, however, James is suspended after picking up too many yellow cards, which will force a shuffling of the back line. With Iro having been traded to Toronto, and Balchan still injured, we may see Eric Gehrig start alongside Marshall in the center - which would be risky in the noise and pressure of the crowd.
SaH: Maybe forgotten by the newer MLS teams (hey, that's us) Eddie Gaven has been in the League for some time. Is he developing into someone who can make that next step to star, or is he locked into a permanent support role?
MR: Gaven is on the cusp of this type of role. I don't know that he is the type of player you build your midfield around, but he'd probably be the second name I'd put on a lineup sheet - even in front of Robbie Rogers.
Speaking generally, one difficulty the Crew have is that they have two very capable wingers in Gaven and Rogers, but no one who can impose his will from the center of the field. Warzycha's scheme calls for the wingers to pinch in on the attack, generally leaving the channels for overlapping outside backs, which leaves little space for a traditional creative midfielder playing behind two forwards. Given this, Gaven may be the best we can hope for in midfield, a "chief piano carrier" type player who knows his role and performs it very well, but around whom the attack is not built.
SaH: Josh Gardner is a former USL Sounder midfielder who is now a regular starter at leftback. How is he making the conversion both to MLS and to a more defensive role?
MR: I had a chance to ask Gardner about his transition to defense, and his return to MLS, last week. He credits his success this year to his teammates, who he said have been very supportive in helping him learn the finer points of defensive positioning. He is glad in a way that he spent time in the USL, as that allowed him to see significant playing time that he wouldn't have seen otherwise (recall every conversation fans have about players going overseas to chase a paycheck but ride the pine). As for the way he plays, his history as an outside midfielder has given him a confidence in attack that has served him well, and an awareness of the field that prevents him from getting the team in trouble should both he and Miranda push up at the same time.
* * *
MR: Crew fans remember Steve Zakuani's horrifying injury from earlier in the season, but may not have kept up with how the Sounders have managed his absence. What have the Sounders done to maintain their attacking efficiency, or has Zakuani's injury been less relevant?
SaH: Seattle's offense has been spurred by Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez. Though Rosales is playing on the right, his use has been similar to how Zakuani was used - a speed player with the ball at his feet. Where Steve would use his speed and dribbling skills to create space primarily for his own shot, Mauro uses it to fire in crosses or slot through-balls.
Fernandez has provided some offensive punch by loitering on the back post and heading in goals, or from a central position in a crowd shooting and keeping the opponents honest. Alvaro has the skill set that are really more like a central midfielder, something that many fans want to see more than twice a year, but he uses them wide on the left. With the two players skillsets they lead to Seattle being very unbalanced in shape when the ball is wide at either players' foot.
MR: Sigi Schmid is in his third year with Seattle, and it was at this point in his tenure with the Crew (late in his third season) that the team came together and became nearly invincible. The same thing seems to be happening now with Seattle, including a historic victory over Monterrey this week in the Champions League. It seemed that the fanbase was getting a bit restless with results earlier - is that still the case, or are people generally happy and optimistic as the season enters it's stretch run?
SaH: One of the disadvantages of having such a strong run from expansion launch to the present is that minor slides tend to result in panic. Fans in other MLS cities might be more patient when a team goes through a rough patch (say 2 points in their first 4 matches), but in Seattle it caused worry and frustration. It probably wasn't fair, but it happened. Now the Soundersphere is absolutely giddy, but little in the fundamentals of the team have changed. The team has always pressured the ball defensively and then attacked the goal quickly with rapid transitions. It was built to succeed on multiple fronts, and they are doing it. Performing to the front office and fanbase expectations will be difficult for any coach to do consistently, as the goal is a Playoff run and multiple trophies every year.
MR: Seattle is entering a grueling stretch with the beginning of Champions League play and the Open Cup semifinals coming up. With 14 games to play before the end of October, Sigi Schmid seems very willing to shuffle his lineup significantly to try and chase every trophy he can. Would you expect a team on Saturday that looks more like the one from Dallas last weekend, or more like the players from Mexico on Tuesday? More broadly, do you think Seattle can break with recent history and make it to MLS Cup having also competed in two other competitions?
SaH: The lineup against the Crew Saturday and then FC Dallas on Tuesday will be heavy on regular starters. Due to MLS playing a light schedule on the international date Seattle has a week and a half to rest after this short stretch of vital games. Then it gets hot and heavy with a ton of travel due to the CONCACAF Champions League. The good news for Seattle fans is that with 6 points in the first 2 CCL games they can afford a little more flexibility in that tournament, particularly because the next two matches are against the weakest team in the Group. Getting 4 points in those two would put Seattle into the knockout round and allow the Sounders to make a run at the Supporters Shield.
Whether they get that cushion or not, Sigi has a large swath of players who he has used to win games in all competitions. Even without Zakauni and O'Brian White Sigi has given 19 players 8 or more starts, and 20 with 10 or more appearances in all competitions. The team has gotten goals from 15 players, and assists from 17. This is a team that is willing to use a rookie defensive mid in vital matches (Servando Carrasco) and the oldest non-Senior roster player in MLS as rightback and centerback in back-to-back matches in 100 degree heat (Zach Scott). If there is a team that is deep enough to make an MLS Cup Playoff run and make it out of the CCL Group Stage it is the Sounders.