"A guy that a lot of people are missing, I think, is Brian Carroll," says head coach Sigi Schmid to response to inquiries regarding the reasons Columbus is atop the heap in the Eastern Conference. "He's been a tremendous addition to our team. He's that fulcrum in the middle of the field and he's able to anchor it for us."
Robbie Rogers scored twice to take his season tally to five goals in a 3-2 victory at San Jose Saturday night. Forward partners Alejandro Moreno and Guillermo Barros Schelotto each earned an assist. Defender Chad Marshall dominated balls in the air. Frankie Hejduk buzzed the opposition as only he can do. Ezra Hendrickson thudded a header off the crossbar, forced an excellent save from Joe Cannon on another attempt, and took a nasty forehead gash in a midair collision with Marshall but recovered to finish the match.
What do the brilliance of Schelotto, the finishing of Moreno and Rogers, the pace of Hejduk, the resilience of Marshall, and the sharp goalkeeping of Will Hesmer have in common? They all need a keystone to hold it together and keep it in sync.
Through it all, just as he'd done for four seasons in D.C. before United let him go in the expansion draft, Carroll tended to his duties in a hectic midfield.
"Carroll's our unsung hero," says Hejduk of the Wake Forest product that Schmid acquired from San Jose in exchange for Kei Kamara. "He plugs holes, he knows the game really well and knows where to be and he works his butt off the whole game. From the outside looking in, you don't see it that much, but I do. He's just really solid and good at positioning himself where he needs to be."
Deprived of central partner Adam Moffat, sidelined with a knee injury, Carroll re-adjusted again when Stefani Miglioranzi went down in the 31st minute, the victim of a left quadriceps strain. On came Brad Evans. Shortly before halftime, somehow Carroll and Moreno wound up chasing Ramiro Corrales on a corner kick, and he stooped between them to head home the first Quakes goal at their temporary home, Buck Shaw Stadium, and the home fans celebrated as if they hadn't seen their team score a goal in years, which it, and they, hadn't.
Going down just before halftime on the road can rattle any team's confidence. The Quakes had been fairly solid defensively, with five goals conceded in five games and the 9,318 fans, deprived of a home goal since the team left town after the 2005 season, were going bonkers.
In the locker room at halftime, rather than freak out, the Crew discussed a few tactical changes and tweaks.
"Whether we go up a goal or down a goal or it's tied, we believe in one another and there's that belief we can pull it out, no matter what the situation," said Carroll.
Quakes midfielder Ronnie O'Brien shifted from the right side into the middle to give Carroll more to worry about as the Quakes used a pair of subs early in the second half. The changes kept on coming. Schmid replaced right mid Eddie Gaven with Emmanuel Ekpo, a rangy athletic player who set up the first goal for Rogers, the first of three Crew goals in 12 minutes as the Quakes unraveled in midfield and coughed up two counterattack goals by Rogers and Evans.
Ryan Johnson scored in the 89th minute to cap a frantic game of 33 shots and nearly constant action, as referee Jair Marrufo whistled just 16 fouls.
Four goals in the final 16 minutes blew apart a 1-0 scoreline as the Crew won on the road for the second time in just three games. It won only four road games all of last year.
In 2008, among its six victories Columbus has won two shutouts and two in shootouts; Rogers scored the last of seven goals in a wild 4-3 conquering of Chivas USA April 12. There hasn't been any set formula but the end product remains the same.
Five players, including Carroll, have gone all 90 minutes in each of the seven games. Carroll knows their determination and stamina will be severely tested in a long season. Schelotto, 35, and Hendrickson, 34, will need rest, and a few players are in contention for national team and Olympic team selection.
"Guys are just trusting each other, working for each other, and with the results we've been able to get so far this year, it builds a bit of confidence," says Carroll, a member of United's 2004 championship team who played 121 regular-season games and 10 playoff matches for D.C. "I can't speak for last year because I wasn't here last year, but I would say it seems to be night and day, just the mentality that this team has going forward and our mindset going into each and every game. It's more strong and more confident this year."
CLARIFICATION (from the May 5 MLS Confidential). The private letter MLS Commissioner Don Garber sent in regard to efforts to find a solution to the Houston soccer stadium issue was sent to Houston Dynamo ownership and President Oliver Luck, not Houston Mayor Bill White, who released the letter to the media.