Can the formula for success be as simple as shut out Robbie Rogers, and you shut out the Crew?
Too simplistic, of course, yet it might seem that way after Tyrone Marshall's clearance off the goal line, after Rogers had skinned Marvell Wynne, rated as the closest Columbus came to scoring in a 0-0 tie at Toronto's BMO Field Saturday. Still, despite being blanked, with five goals Rogers is second among MLS goalscorers behind Landon Donovan, whose blistering start to the season has muffled, but not silenced, those critics of his refusal to play overseas.
Donovan tried twice to settle in Europe, with first the reserve team and then the first team at Bayer Leverkusen. For Rogers, who headed to Dutch club Heerenveen two years ago after winning the NCAA Division I title his freshman year at Maryland, a second venture - if there is one - has to turn out better.
"I wasn't ready," he admits, of joining fellow U.S. youth international Michael Bradley but staying only seven months. "Growing up as a little kid I always thought, 'I want to go to Europe, I want to go to Europe,' and a lot of kids don't realize what it really is.
"I was a little spoiled when I was little and I had to grow up. It's helping me playing in the league here and hopefully I'll have a chance in the future."
The Confessions of Robbie don't end there. No parades were staged and the Crew fielded scarcely any requests for speaking engagements after he scored three goals in 10 games last season. At Heerenveen he'd learned he didn't much like the Netherlands but other knowledge had yet to take hold by the time he'd gone to the Crew in a weighted lottery.
"Last year I was going through the motions a little bit through the season and towards the end I was like, 'I really need to make a difference,'" says Rogers. "I think I've always been a hard worker. It's not that. It's just realizing that I need to take more responsibility in this team and be more dangerous, I guess, and make it more of my team, also."
Columbus coach Sigi Schmid's tenuous job status last fall might have prompted him to jab the spurs into Rogers more than he did, but he gambled that the Southern California youth who had grown up with his son Kyle would eventually get the message. Schmid also used some additional time to work with Rogers during the 2008 preseason after U.S. under-23 coach Peter Nowak cut him from the qualifying squad.
"When Robbie came back from Heerenveen, we talked a little bit," says Schmid, who started Rogers in six of his 10 appearances last year. "I let him sit for a little bit. Our conversations were all about, 'How badly do you want to be good at this game?' Peter Nowak maybe did me a little bit of a favor by dropping him from the Olympic team. I said to Robbie, 'You've got a chance to go out there and prove yourself to a lot of people.'
"At the end of the day it's about numbers. That's what you've got to do, you've got to stick the ball in the back of the net."
He helped the Crew down San Jose, 3-2, May 10 with a pair of crisp finishes after being played in behind the Quakes back line, which Schmid prefers he do rather than dribbling everyone a la Georgie Best. He'd scored the week before also.
"I missed one last weekend. I shot over," he said of a blown chance that followed his netting the winner in a 2-1 win against the Wizards. "So for this one I was just like, 'I'm going to hit it on goal, hard and low, and it went in." Right through keeper Joe Cannon's feet went his equalizer, and eight minutes later he rounded Cannon to score a second as the Crew won (3-1) its fifth straight game. That run ended in Toronto, yet Columbus, unbeaten in six matches, tops the Eastern Conference.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley has named Rogers to a 33-man preliminary squad for upcoming friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina, and in that camp he may get the chance to catch up with another member of the Bradley clan whose own fortunes in Europe are roiling the transfer waters.
"Michael was prepared, having played in the league [one MLS season] a little bit and with his dad," says Rogers of Bradley, whose 15-goal club campaign this season has drawn the interest of several major clubs. "Just look at the season he's had. He was a lot more prepared than I was and I give credit to him."
In the pro game, forwards blessed with the speed and guile to scorch defenders, as DaMarcus Beasley discovered when he landed on the continent at PSV Eindhoven, must score goals. Period. Fancy stepovers and bending crosses are great, but lanes to goal are to be exploited.
"Sigi's always talking about a killer instinct," says Rogers, who celebrated his 21st birthday enthusiastically two days after bagging his pair in San Jose. "I watch video and do all that stuff. I think I'm finding it a little bit now and hopefully in the future I'll get more and more into it."