Crew hampered by injuries
When Sigi Schmid was tabbed to lead the Columbus Crew last October, a glorious path seemed set before him.
Except in this case, the best-laid plans haven't just gone awry; they've strayed wildly off course.
With just seven matches to play, the Crew find themselves in last place in the Eastern Conference, seven points behind Kansas City in the race for the fourth and final playoff spot. Worse, the Columbus attack, with just 18 goals in 25 matches, looks poised to set a new league record for offensive futility. The defense, while improved of late, hasn't been much better, ranking 10th.
For Schmid, the Crew's performance has made this his most maddening season as a coach, with those frustrations coming to the surface following his side's 2-1 home loss to Real Salt Lake on Aug. 16. Following that match, which at the time extended the team's winless streak to 13 games, Schmid told the Columbus Dispatch that he was thinking of resigning. While stopping short of saying he was misquoted, Schmid mentioned that there was "confusion" in the way his comments were reported and that stepping down was not in his plans.
"I've never had any intention of walking away from the job," Schmid says. "I've never been afraid of challenges. That's something I definitely want and accept. But I just wanted to make sure that [the players] understood clearly from me that if they think I'm part of the problem, I'll step away. I think they understood that, even though it got reported a little bit strangely. At no point do I feel that I've lost the team."
Even with his short-term plans secure, talk of Schmid as a potential national team coach has cooled somewhat. The Columbus manager did admit he had one informal chat with U.S. Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati, but nothing of substance was discussed. Still, even with Jurgen Klinsmann still considered the front-runner, Schmid is aware of what this season could do to his chances.
"If I'm one of the guys being considered, that's great," Schmid says of the national team job. "Certainly having wins would enhance that consideration. I'm not so naïve to think that it wouldn't, but I also hope that the people who are making that decision realize that my coaching is the body of work that I've done, and not just this year."
Schmid says the primary culprit of his team's struggles has been a season-long injury bug. Of course, that explanation has been used so often in MLS that it's the coaching equivalent of, "The dog ate my homework." Except in Schmid's case, it's true. The Crew have burned through a decade's worth of goalkeepers in one season, and other areas of the field have been hard-hit as well. The offense has struggled in part because the continued shifting of players has resulted in a lack of cohesion in the attacking third of the field.
But more than losing veterans such as goalkeeper Jon Busch or defender Frankie Hejduk, the injuries have exposed the team's weaknesses, a lack of on-field leadership being among the biggest. Midfielder Duncan Oughton, who returned recently after a long injury layoff, feels the team had leadership earlier in the year, but maybe not the kind that a young team like the Crew needed.
"You had [players] who led by example and were really good one-on-one with people, explaining and helping," Oughton says. "But maybe they weren't so good in group conflict situations where you say, 'Hey guys, this isn't good enough.' Yelling at the whole team, I don't know if it's just my personality, but I'm not afraid to do either. At the end of the day, I want all of the guys on the team to like me, but sometimes you've got to yell at them a little bit."
The injuries also forced Schmid to throw some of his younger players into the fray earlier than expected. Other teams have had to do the same, but the extent of the injuries meant that the youngsters were on the field at the same time, a fact Schmid feels has its pluses and minuses.
"The young guys that we have thrown in will be better for it next year," he said. "It's easier to develop a Jason Garey or a Kei Kamara if they are playing next to a Jaime Moreno or a Paco Palencia or an Ante Razov. It's harder to develop them if they are playing next to each other."
Yet the injuries are only part of the reason for the Crew's struggles, and some of the problems have been of Schmid's making. The Crew boss' decision in the preseason to center his attack on midfielder Sebastian Rozental at last appears to be paying some dividends, but the fact that it took the Chilean two-thirds of the season to get fit clearly cost the team points.
Schmid has also been hyperactive on the player acquisition front, acquiring the likes of Ryan Coiner, Joseph Ngwenya, and Ezra Hendrickson, among others. The midseason moves have served to bolster the Crew's roster, but have also made the on-field chemistry that much more elusive, a fact that Schmid concedes.
"Right now, we're where I would have wanted us to be about a month or a month and a half into the season," Schmid says.
But while much has been made of the new arrivals, as well as the rookies, some veteran players who have been with them all season have struggled as well. Defender Chad Marshall has yet to turn himself into the elite defender that his immense abilities would suggest. And Eddie Gaven, whose versatility allowed Schmid to use him in a variety of attacking positions, still looks a shadow of the player he was during his second season in New York.
Yet even with all of these problems, what's stunning is that the Crew aren't completely out of the playoff picture. A preponderance of draws has meant that no other Eastern Conference team aside from D.C. United has been able to get separation from the chasing pack, thus keeping Columbus' faint playoff hopes alive.
Schmid is pinning his hopes on the Crew winning their four remaining home games, but in order for that to happen, Columbus will have to find a semblance of offensive form that so far has been in short supply. Yet with Oughton now healthy again, his partnership with Jose Retiz has provided sufficient steel in the midfield, allowing Rozental to devote himself more to the attack. The dynamic play of Ngwenya out wide has added a dimension to the team's offense as well. But aside from individual players, Schmid feels that what his team really needs is to find a ruthless streak in front of goal.
"Sometimes it's just that final drive in the 18-yard box, that willingness to turn a half chance or three-quarters chance into a full chance by doing it a little quicker, by putting in a little more effort, by pulling the trigger rather than looking for something a little bit better," Schmid says. "That's a little bit of the [result] of playing with young players. Young players tend to always think that something else might happen, whereas when you get to be older you realize that, 'This might be as good as it gets, so I'll just take it.'"
If Schmid is able to coax his team into the playoffs, the vacant national team job may or may not come his way. But for victory-starved Crew fans, it will be a sign that Schmid's best-laid plans are at least beginning to bear some fruit.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.