Crew disappointed by loss but not ready to panic

New faces, new responsibilities as Columbus struggle to compete

The Columbus Crew got an early taste of what they need to improve on after a 3-1 season-opening loss at D.C. United on Saturday. But they aren’t ready to hit the panic button.

“No team wants to go the first seven, eight games without a win,” midfielder Eddie Gaven said. “You don’t want to start the season in a big hole like that but at the same time this league is about getting hot at the right time. If you can get hot at the end of the year you have a good chance to win a championship.”

HIGHLIGHTS: D.C. 3, Columbus 1

Coach Robert Warzycha left a few familiar faces out of the lineup Saturday although nagging injuries had to be taken into account. 

The Crew’s top 2011 draft pick, Rich Balchan started for Shaun Francis (hamstring) after spending the early parts of the preseason at defensive midfield or in the centerback spot.

Technical director Brian Bliss liked what Balchan brings to the team.

“Balchan, because he wasn’t an attacking type guy, people tend to forget his quality and skills,” he said. “He’s got—not to put the cart before the horse—national-team athleticism. Can he get there? It all depends.”

Balchan received his welcome-to-MLS moment in the 50th minute, when Josh Wolff turned him around outside the penalty area en route to beating goalkeeper William Hesmer for the goal. 

Serbian Dejan Rusmir, signed last week, took the holding midfielder position occupied the past three years by Brian Carroll before he was traded to Philadelphia. Rusmir looked unsteady, and Emmanuel Ekpo playing in front of him has still not proven to be a reliable playmaker.

Andy Iro was the preseason favorite to start alongside central defender Chad Marshall but Julius James made the most of his three weeks since being acquired as a free agent and made the start Saturday against his former club. 

Iro has been nursing a groin injury but James adds more speed.

The other big change was starting second-year left midfielder Dilly Duka, who played three matches last season, over veteran Robbie Rogers. 

“He really had a great preseason,” Bliss said of Duka. “He’s shown us glimpses of what we saw in him in the combine when he was playing against guys his own age and skill level.

“He’s raised his game. His attitude’s been great,” he added. “I think you’re going to see good stuff out of him.”

However, Duka may have showed his inexperience by picking up a yellow card for a hard tackle in the 17th minute. Rogers replaced Duka in the 66th minute and scored on a penalty in the 80th to make it 3-1 after Charlie Davis netted two goals. 

Finally, forward Jeff Cunningham returned to the Crew for the first time since being traded after the 2004 season. He got the start over Emilio Renteria (hamstring).

Warzycha said Andres Mendoza, is comfortable with both as a running mate up top.

“He is a good enough player who can play with either forward,” he said. “Basically you’re putting two forwards together to combine. There has to be a good understanding between them and I feel they all have that.”

Cunningham went 60 minutes with no real scoring opportunity and was replaced by newcomer Tom Heinemann. Cunningham remains one shy of retired former D.C. United forward Jaime Moreno’s MLs record 133 goals.

“The record, barring injuries, I’m going to reach it at some point,” Cunningham said. “My job is to come every day and compete, do the little things in training to prepare myself for the matches. Whatever playing time I get I have to make the most of it.”

Despite jettisoning nine players, including star forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the Crew have many of the same players that won the MLS Cup in 2008 and the Supporters’ Shield that year and the next.

“We have a great core that’s done very well the past three years,” Gaven said. “The new guys we’ve brought on will make a huge impact.”

Just not on this night.