Columbus is now five games into their 2009 campaign and are still winless in their quest to defend the MLS Cup. Not only have they avoided taking home maximum points in 2009, they have looked positively anemic in doing so.
Crew fans have to be feeling disappointment when they think about how the season has gone thus far, but should they be in panic mode?
Absolutely. A five-game winless streak from the defending champs is plenty worrisome, but it looks even worse when you consider that aside from Chivas, they really haven't played anybody from the top tier of MLS.
Comparing this season to last, I've pinpointed a few possible reasons for the struggles.
1. The absence of Frankie Hejduk
Hejduk is one of the best defenders in MLS, and he's been absent from the Crew lineup since their opener due to international duty. He's been brilliant for the national team during World Cup qualifying so it's easy to see that Columbus is missing his spark.
With Hejduk in the lineup, Columbus becomes a very effective offensive team. Hejduk is able to rampage up and down the right wing for a full 90 minutes, causing the opposition a lot of problems. His crosses have led to a lot of goals for both the United States and Columbus.
In the first five games on 2009, with Hejduk in the lineup for only one match, Columbus has scored only five times. In 2008, with Hejduk involved for all of the first five games, Columbus scored nine times, including four in one game against Chivas USA.
2. The loss of Sigi Schmid
Manager Sigi Schmid led Columbus to their first ever MLS Cup title in 2008, and then was inexplicably let go by the club. I don't like to put a ton of stock in a manager's ability to influence their club, but it's impossible to avoid here.
We've got a very easy comparison to make here. Schmid's old team has gone winless in five games without him in 2009. Schmid's new team, Seattle Sounders FC, hasn't lost a game, and hasn't even conceded a goal.
Schmid is pressing all the right buttons with his new club, and Columbus seems a little lost without him. They've just been out of sync at both ends of the pitch without his leadership.
3. An over-reliance on Guillermo Barros Schelotto
This may seem like a ridiculous argument, but bear with me here. The 2008 MLS MVP, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, has been scoring too much in 2009.
For the Crew to be successful, Schelotto needs to be a passer first. His vision created 19 goals for others in 2008, but only seven for himself. When he is distributing the ball to Columbus' forwards, it tends to spread out defenses and leave them open for Columbus to strike.
Sure, he should score a goal every once in awhile, but he shouldn't be leading the team in goals.
In 2009, that's exactly what he's doing. Through five games, he's tied for the league lead in goals with three. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that he hasn't registered a single assist.
Perhaps his forwards simply haven't stepped up like they need to, but whatever the reason, having Schelotto remain as the Crew's primary scorer will only hurt the club.
4. Resting on the laurels of 2008
Columbus must have thought that they could repeat as champions with the same roster that they had in 2008, because they didn't make enough improvements when compared to the rest of the league.
Toronto added Dwayne De Rosario and Adrian Serioux. Chicago gets a full season of Brian McBride. Chivas has a full season with Zach Thornton. FC Dallas added Dave Van Den Bergh. LA even added Greg Berhalter to shore up their defense.
Nobody of note joined Columbus' ranks in the offseason. They kept their talented core of players together but that won't be enough due to the improvement in the rest of the league.
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