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Mar 14, 2009

Crew will challenge for repeat honors despite loss of Schmid

Editor's note: This is the final MLS team preview by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season.

2008 record and finish: 17-7-6, first in East, MLS champions

Key additions: M Stanley Nyazamba

Key losses: Manager Sigi Schmid, MF Brad Evans, MF Stefani Miglioranzi, DF Ezra Hendrickson

Key questions facing team

1. Any reason to believe the Crew won't be as good in 2009?

Short answer: not really. It's the same team, pretty much. In fact, the starting 11 will be identical except for one change: Adam Moffat or Emmanuel Ekpo will replace Brad Evans, who was scooped up by Seattle in the expansion draft.

Moffat is mending slowly from last spring's knee surgery. Remember, Evans was actually a replacement for Moffat, who was performing quite well before that knee injury. So there's really no reason to believe that he can't be just as effective as Evans was in 2008 in the central midfield hole in front of Brian Carroll.

2. Is there a Guillermo Barros Schelotto encore?

The Crew's wily Argentine playmaker schemed his way around opposition defenses in last year's landmark campaign, collecting 19 assists on his way to league MVP honors. His contributions were similarly huge at playoff time and in the Crew's MLS Cup triumph over Red Bull.

Schelotto turns 36 in May, but there is little to suggest he's a playmaker in decline. True, he doesn't practice as hard as days past, but management and teammates are happily tolerant. They trust that he knows his body and understands how to manage it over a long season, and they see firsthand that the passionate Schelotto never dogs it on game days.

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3. How much higher can Robbie Rogers fly?

Columbus' slashing left winger was among the revelations of MLS in 2008, as his bold dashes down the flank at Crew Stadium steadily unsettled defenses.

A bit raw entering the season, Rogers made big progress in 2008. Better decisions on when to aggressively go at defenders and when to keep possession and bide time helped him grow into greater consistency. Rogers' reward was in six goals, third best on the talented Crew roster. Still, there may be untapped potential yet. For instance, he had just three assists -- a curiously low total considering his ability to get wide and adequately deliver crosses.

Crew manager Robert Warzycha says it's about Rogers making even better strategic choices and refining some technical points, and the manager expects to see that assist total improve in 2009. If Rogers, who is now 21 years old, can indeed keep improving, Europe will surely beckon by season's end -- if not before.

4. How hungry can you be when you're full?

Repeat championships do happen in MLS, but not often. Only two clubs have done so. And retaining the crown was a little easier when D.C. United doubled up back in the days of a 12-team league. Now there are 15 combatants, which reduces repeat chances from the outset. It's a tough, seven-month campaign just to reach the playoffs. And Columbus has the CONCACAF Champions League to worry about, too.

So, can they keep the edge and stay solidly on task throughout? Even a shred of creeping complacency can knock a club off stride in a league stuffed with parity.

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"That's my job, to keep everybody focused and remind them every day that everybody is going to take a swing at us," Warzycha said. "Everybody wants to beat the champions. We have to be mentally strong and be ready for everybody."

Biggest X Factor: Manager Robert Warzycha

The big change wasn't in on-field personnel; rather, it was on the manager's seat. Sigi Schmid became the league's first manager to leave for another MLS club after winning a title. Warzycha, who has been around MLS since 1996 and had served as an assistant at Crew Stadium since 2002, filled the void.

Schmid's big personality was a major locker room presence. Warzycha, although well respected, is more unassuming. How that translates in terms of leadership and ability to steer a team through tough times -- and over a season that could stretch into November, the tests are out there -- will say a lot about how things unfold around Crew Stadium this year.

Breakout Player to Watch: Emmanuel Ekpo

Such a settled lineup doesn't provide many opportunities for newbies keen on elbowing into the lineup. Ekpo may be the one who can do it, however.

The dynamic young midfielder, a member of Nigeria's silver medalist side in Beijing last year, will apparently get his chances early. He's the leading fill-in choice for Moffat, who may not be ready to start until early to mid-April. Ekpo will also get his chances during busy times in 2009, which are sure to crop up considering games in MLS, U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.

John Harkes' Take:
"Well, the reigning champions ... it's good to have a new champion. But that also makes them more of a target now this year. You know, I've been in those situations where you win a championship for D.C. United and the next year everyone's after you even more, and that's gonna be the case with Columbus Crew, meaning that they're going to be marked on the calendars. You know that's the date where each team's going to want to go in and challenge and knock off the champ. They won't have Sigi Schmid on the sidelines anymore to deal with the pressure and to deal with these things on a game-to-game basis ... although, you know I think he left his staff pretty much intact pretty well. They still have a lot of players there to keep it intact and they'll be a solid team. They'll be contenders no matter what."

He's really better suited to attack from the flanks, so he could see increased time if Eddie Gaven or Rogers miss games due to injuries or international call-ups.

Outlook:

The team is solid, front to back. It's confident. It's fit, with players checking in for preseason training in great shape, according to management. So, injuries and Schelotto's ability to remain effective could be the difference in a legitimate run for repeat honors.

Warzycha has little interest in trying to reinvent the wheel, making a concerted effort to maintain status quo wherever possible. It looks like the Crew will be in the same 4-4-1-1 setup that worked so well in 2008, with Schelotto free to float and probe for the vulnerable areas. Young midfielders like Rogers, Eddie Gaven and Moffat or Ekpo will be around to cover defensively, which should subtract some wear off those aging legs.

Management couldn't do enough to keep coach Schmid happy following the title run, but they did score big in re-signing MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who spurned European overtures for a Crew redux in Ohio. With Marshall and central partner Danny O'Rourke, who initially looked shaky last year but gained effectiveness once he finally embraced the role, the back line is sturdy. Carroll is back as the holding presence in a dandy midfield, and there are plenty of goal scorers prowling the park.

William Hesmer was good enough in goal to get called into Bob Bradley's national team camp in January. Right back Frankie Hejduk remains the team's emotional fulcrum (not to mention being a league leader in freakish agelessness and exemplary hair care).

There's no reason to believe Schelotto and Co. won't challenge once again for Eastern supremacy -- although there is ample competition in what looks to be easily the stronger conference in 2009.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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