Mired in a surprising winless start that has made league history, the Columbus Crew are more than ready for the return of their team leader.
Captain Frankie Hejduk will be back in action for the first time since the season opener when the Crew host the Kansas City Wizards on Saturday night in a rematch of a playoff series from last year.
After winning its first MLS Cup last season, Columbus (0-2-5) is off to the worst start in franchise history and worst ever by a defending champion. The Crew are the league's only remaining winless team.
Part of the problem is that Columbus has conceded 12 goals, mostly while Hejduk has missed the last six games. The tough-tackling defender played in a 1-all season-opening tie with Houston, before he strained his right hamstring while playing for the U.S. national team April 1.
"This is a big game for us on Saturday. Everybody knows that," Hejduk said. "The first win we get will be a fresh start for us. Hopefully it's this Saturday."
Hejduk's return will mark the first time in 2009 that Columbus will have all four starting defenders from last year's MLS Cup. Goalkeeper William Hesmer may also come back after missing two games with a sprained left knee.
The Crew blew a lead in last Saturday's 1-all tie at Toronto FC when Chad Barrett evened the score in the 64th minute. Emmanuel Ekpo, shifted out to a more comfortable role out wide in the midfield, scored his first goal of the season for Columbus 10 minutes earlier.
"There's no frustration. We'd feel better if we win just one game," Crew forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. "Maybe the next game, with Kansas City. The team needs one."
Columbus will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Crew Stadium on Saturday when it welcomes Kansas City (3-3-2), which is visiting for the first time since being eliminated with a 2-0 loss in the second leg of an Eastern Conference semifinal series last fall. The clubs drew 1-1 in Kansas City in the first leg.
The Wizards will play for the second time in four days after rallying for a 1-all draw with D.C. United on Wednesday. Josh Wolff scored in the second half for Kansas City, which was a bit rusty after a 10-day layoff.
"We've got to keep plugging away," coach Curt Onalfo said. "There are times you're going to put away all your chances. Other times you don't."
Kansas City finished with a season-low three shots on goal, and has managed only two goals in its last three games.
The Wizards are beginning a stretch in which they play three of their next four games on the road. They have dropped their last three league visits to Columbus.