Crew Cuts: Depth charge

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Almost five months ago, the Columbus Crew hosted rival Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference final. Columbus dispatched the Fire and turncoat Brian McBride with an electrifying 2-1 victory en route to the Crew's first MLS Cup title.

Since then, Crew Stadium has seen no Schelotto-to-Marshall aerial acrobatics, Hesmer goalmouth theatrics or Rogers laser strikes. The Nordecke has assembled once, but to cheer on the Red, White and Blue, not the Black and Gold.

Crew fans thirsting for a new season can rejoice. The drought is over.

Columbus takes on Toronto FC, a sexy sleeper pick for this year's Eastern Conference crown, in its 2009 home opener Saturday afternoon. Judging by last week's 1-1 draw at Houston, fans can expect the same skill and spirit that powered Columbus to the cup last season.

One caveat, though: The Crew that drew with Houston will be missing some key components Saturday. Frankie Hejduk, Alejandro Moreno and Duncan Oughton will be away playing with their respective national teams in World Cup qualifying matches.

MLS clubs and their fans have grown accustomed to this problem. While other leagues around the world institute mandatory off weeks to prevent conflicts with major international competitions, MLS refuses to revamp its schedule, a puzzling policy that sometimes pits domestic matches directly against international ones.

Thus, teams sometimes take the field without their brightest stars. It can be a disappointment for fans; when McBride played for the Crew, first-time customers were often bummed to discover that "Bake" would not be playing that day.

Considering the Crew's current wealth of fan favorites, a bigger problem for Columbus might be an impending test of its vaunted depth.

In the final year before a World Cup, international competition heats up significantly. And MLS reduced team roster sizes from 28 to 24, limiting the Crew's player pool.

Furthermore, later this season Columbus will enter the CONCACAF Champions League, an international tournament against other top teams from this part of the world. So the Crew will be busier than most MLS squads.

Hejduk isn't worried.

"I don't think it makes a difference whatsoever," Hejduk said. "We proved last year that when guys left for national team duties or were injured that guys stepped in, and the level of play didn't change too much."

He may be right. Jason Garey and Stephen Lenhart have filled in competently for Moreno, and Andy Iro is fully capable of starting on the backline.

But even if the national team call-ups don't hurt the Crew this week, you have to believe Hejduk is itching to roar at the Nordecke once more. Just two more weeks, surfer dude.

What: Columbus Crew vs. Toronto FC

When: 4 p.m. Saturday, March 28

Where: Crew Stadium, North Side