Crew season preview: A word with Robert Warzycha

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Crew that will launch its 16th MLS campaign this weekend in D.C. bears only a slight resemblance to the squad that suited up in black and gold last season. But if there's one steadfast ingredient, it's Robert Warzycha.

Warzycha, who took over head coaching duties in 2009, has been with the Crew since 1996. After a successful European career that included a stint with Everton in the English Premier League, the Poland native signed with Columbus a few months into the club's inaugural season, helping to lift the Crew out of last place and into the playoffs.

An attack-minded midfielder who usually roamed the wings, Warzycha earned the nickname "The Polish Rifle" for free kicks that rocketed past MLS goalies when they weren't threatening to soar out of the stadium.

He transitioned into an assistant coaching job under Greg Andrulis after the 2002 season and was interim head coach for much of 2005 after Andrulis was dismissed. When Sigi Schmid departed for Seattle after leading the Crew to MLS Cup in 2008, Warzycha nabbed the head coach position for good.

He attracted instant criticism from a vocal faction of fans for supposedly dumbing down Schmid's championship tactics. Though Warzycha led the Crew to a second straight Supporters Shield for the league's best record in 2009, the club was upset in the first round of the playoffs in 2009 and 2010.

This offseason Warzycha made his most controversial moves since taking over the Crew, working with General Manager Mark McCullers and Technical Director Brian Bliss to oversee a massive roster turnover.

They chose not to renew contracts for Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Gino Padula, Duncan Oughton, Jason Garey and Cory Elenio. They traded Brian Carroll and Steven Lenhart for draft picks. Adam Moffat and Eric Brunner were selected in the expansion draft.

Many of the remaining players are injury-prone (Chad Marshall, Danny O'Rourke) or frustrating in their unfulfilled potential (Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo). They're joined by a new slew of rookies, journeymen and international veterans expected to make Columbus younger and faster at the expense of most of its star power.

"What we did was necessary," Warzycha said in an interview Tuesday. "If not this year, we would have to do it next year. So it's never ever a good time to do it. There's no good time to do it. But we have to. We owe that not only to ourselves but also to our fans, because we want to play better.

"We were very productive last year, and then everybody figured out how to play against us. We had to change something because if not, I don't think we would make the playoffs. Or we would be a good team during the season, but then the playoffs would be the same. I didn't want to go through that same road again."

Having lived through one roster upheaval after another in his career, Warzycha shrugged off the absence of fan favorites such as Schelotto, Hejduk and Lenhart: "One star is gone; the next is going to be raised. [The fans] are going to find somebody that they're going to like. The first thing's the club."

Though a few of those new faces shined this winter in preseason matches and CONCACAF Champions League play, Warzycha cautioned that this Crew has yet to gel. He hasn't yet assessed each new player's strengths and weaknesses, and a flurry of injuries has prevented the starting lineup from cohering.

That was evident when Real Salt Lake made mincemeat of Columbus in the Champions League quarterfinals.

"In Arizona [in the preseason], we had a pretty good idea how we were going to play the games against Real Salt Lake," Warzycha said. "But before that game, we picked up a few injuries, and we had a completely different team on the field."

Whipping this roster into shape will be Warzycha's greatest challenge as a coach, but he's conquered a tougher quest before: He and wife Eliza raised their family in a foreign country. Son Bartosz won a fight with cancer and went on to play soccer at Marshall. Elder son Konrad starred for Ohio State and was drafted this winter by Sporting Kansas City (formerly the Kansas City Wizards).

Warzycha has lasted far longer in Columbus than the two years he originally planned for. And while most of his friends and family are back in Poland, the coach said he and his kids will likely remain stateside for life.

"I'm probably going to stay here," Warzycha said. "My home is here."

Whether he remains on the Crew Stadium sidelines for long is another story entirely, the latest chapter of which starts Saturday in D.C. But whether Warzycha retires a champion or gets canned for running the Crew into the ground, one thing's certain: A Crew without him would be a Crew unlike any Columbus has known.

Robert Warzycha's favorite things

Band: AC/DC

Actor: Adam Sandler - "I like to laugh. I don't like horror. And I like to watch movies that I've already seen so I know how it ends."

Restaurant: Fado at Easton

Sports teams: Real Madrid, Liverpool, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets (he rooted for Detroit before the Jackets came to Columbus)

See theCrew debut:

Columbus Crew vs. DC United

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19

TV: ONN