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The Curious Case of The Columbus Crew

This weekend's scoreless draw with seriously undermanned New York is just one sign of troubled times in Columbus.

By Andrew Villegas

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew’s supporters (the “Nordecke” for the unfamiliar) began chanting “Guillermo! Guillermo!” in the second half of their team’s 0-0 draw with the New York Red Bulls, referring to the face of the Crew’s off-season house cleaning castoffs — the Argentine (and looking more and more indispensable) Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Heavy touches and an unwillingness to turn toward goal and strike marred the Crew’s second outing of the year.

A draw was a blessing, and you’d be hard pressed to hear a true Crew fan without their blinders on complaining that it was a bad result, despite the Red Bulls being severely short-handed. But that didn’t stop the fans from chanting for their former Maestro, who now plays back in his home country of Argentina captaining Gimnasia La Plata, and who is scoreless in seven appearances for them this year.

A week earlier, a haplessly regular Crew lost 3-1 to last year’s people under the stairs — D.C. United. In the offseason, the Crew added striking journeyman 34-year-old Jeff Cunningham for a second go-round with the team to bolster its forward corps, but Cunningham hasn’t been given a chance to make an impression with the team. But if adding a by-MLS-standards ancient, aging striker didn’t make abundantly clear, the Crew are pedal-to-the-ground rebuilding. They managed only 10,306 fans to their home-opener, their smallest for a home opener. The proud Crew have fallen on seriously hard times.

This is not easy for people from the Buckeye state. Ohio is sports crazy. The Cleveland Cavaliers notwithstanding, THE Ohio State University and a couple middling American football teams fuel Ohioan lust for glory, and for a long time, the Crew satisfied that lust. They won the MLS Cup in 2008 and since have finished no worse than second place in the regular season in the Eastern Conference. So why is the Hunt family — of which its patriarch Lamar is one of the founders of MLS and the namesake of the U.S. Open Cup — rebuilding? Because being unhappy when you’re standing still is a sign you’ve arrived, and the Crew are desperately trying to make everyone believe they’ve arrived and should be one of the most venerated franchises in MLS.

By most accounts, the team’s 2010 campaign was a success: They lost to the Seattle Sounders in the final of the U.S. Open Cup and made a quarterfinal run in the CONCACAF Champions League. In league play, they finished second in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, and came within a penalty kick of making a trip to the MLS Cup semifinals, but Brian Carroll — who has since left the team after the Crew traded him for cash and a second-round pick to the Philadelphia Union  — missed his shot high over the crossbar.

Emmanuel Ekpo is one of the Crew's nice young players, but he's being asked to do a whole lot real fast.

Not satisfied with merely trying again the next year by adding a piece here or there, the Crew began wholesale reduction of their roster: Aging star Frankie Hejduk and promising striker Steven Lenhart were both let go. And of course, there’s Schelotto, who is certainly past his prime, but could have helped the Crew rebuild by both providing a steadying force in the attacking midfield and by mentoring Emmanuel Ekpo and Dilly Duka and readying them to take the reins. Instead Ekpo and Duka, 23 and 21 years old respectively, are left to fend for themselves.

But all this is significantly less important to Crew fans as well as most MLS observers as Rogers’ departure will be. Rogers has (Re)Tweeted to the effect that he soon won’t be part of the Crew after not starting the Crew’s first game at D.C. United, but Rogers started the Crew’s game against the Red Bulls, fueling some speculation that Rogers and the Crew brass may be able to salvage their relationship. The Columbus Dispatch even reported last week that Rogers gave the Crew front office a list of the teams he would accept a move to. But, if the Crew are able to hold on to Rogers, which they’ve said publicly that they’d like to do, it would likely be to their advantage. A dynamic young winger like Robbie Rogers provides a spark to a team that desperately needs one (see the Landon Donovan effect) and gives the Crew a solid midfield to build around. It would also give them a face to trot out to pacify rabid Ohio soccer fans, who surely won’t accept that such a proud team with a legacy like the Crew’s would ever have to rebuild.

And really, that’s why Columbus’ management intervened in the first place, breaking up a mostly successful team: If second place in the East isn’t good enough and it’s mostly only a few bad breaks that keeps you from success in the MLS Cup playoffs, then it’s your pride that thinks a complete overhaul is the next logical step in the progression of a founding team in MLS, and not much more.

Andrew Villegas writes a weekly column about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.

Andrew Villegas

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  • Good stuff again Andrew. I was surprised that the Crew front office dismantled things this offseason– but I fear part of it had to do with Schlotto no longer being quite as elite a player as before. This is a franchise that probably fancies itself as a kind of San Antonio Spurs of the MLS– but once your Tim Duncan is no longer Tim Duncan– you have to move forward. We’ll see how it goes.