Injuries, new faces as Crew prepare for RSL

Offseason upheaval gives Columbus unfamiliar look

COLUMBUS – How different were the offseasons for the Crew and Real Salt Lake – the teams squaring off Tuesday in Columbus in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal?

A look at the most recent transactions page at MLSsoccer.com shows that the Crew’s “in” and “out” listings of players are nine lines each.

For RSL, the same columns are only three rows apiece.

Yes, it’s a new Crew.

Whether it’s improved will take months to decide, but it will be hard to match the success of the past three seasons when the likes of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Duncan Oughton and Brian Carroll led the Crew to an MLS Cup, two Supporters’ Shields and their current second straight year in the CCL quarterfinals.

They were among nine players who did not return this season.

“It was the hardest offseason I’ve had to deal with as a professional,” defender Chad Marshall said. “It was kind of frustrating at times, but we have to put faith in the coaching staff and front office that they know what they’re doing and hopefully we can have a successful 2011 season.”

[inline_node:327091]Those in charge not only had to replace the ones who left but also fill the six roster spots added this season.

The biggest acquisitions were Chilean right back Sebastian Miranda (at right) and veteran forward Jeff Cunningham, the No. 2 scorer in league history who returns to Columbus after a five-year absence.

Injuries have forced even more roster upheaval. William Hesmer was always iffy for Tuesday’s game after suffering a fractured right shoulder on Oct. 24, while backup Andy Gruenebaum was expected to fill in as he did in the playoffs.

But nagging problems from a September 2009 hip surgery have kept Gruenebaum from training. As a result the team will use former Ohio State standout Ray Burse Jr. on Tuesday and, most likely, the second leg on March 1 in Sandy, Utah.

The Crew knew Danny O'Rourke (left knee surgery) would be questionable even for the MLS opener March 19, but defender Shaun Francis (hamstring) and midfielder Kevin Burns (ribs) are newly injured. Neither will play against RSL.

Also, midfielder Dilly Duka (abdomen) is questionable and even Marshall left practice early Monday. Crew head coach Robert Warzycha said Marshall sustained was a blow to the face, although the injury was deemed nothing to be worried about.

The lineup in front of Burse, who did not play last year after being released in the preseason by FC Dallas, could see newcomer Josh Gardner at left back opposite Miranda, with Marshall and Andy Iro in the central defense.

Rookie Rich Balchan could start in the defensive midfield position vacated by Carroll. Emmanuel Ekpo may be in front of Balchan with Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers interchangeable on the wings. Gaven missed days of training because of a sprained right ankle but said he will be ready Tuesday.

Cunningham should pair with Emilio Renteria or Andres Mendoza.

There are nine rookies among 14 newcomers and some – including Balchan – could make their debuts.

“They’re young as far as age but they’re very talented players,” Cunningham said. “I know they’ll rise to the challenge and for the young boys who haven’t had a taste of MLS. I’m sure they’ll be excited.”

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