[MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEW]If the 2008 Crew, winner of the Supporters' Shield, isn't all that different than the 2007 version that missed the playoffs, how can it be so much better?
"I can't speak for last year because I wasn't here last year," says midfielder Brian Carroll, acquired during the expansion draft in a trade with San Jose, who had claimed him from D.C. United. "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."
Carroll said this way back in May, long before Columbus clinched the Eastern Conference title with weeks to spare, Guillermo Barros Schelotto topped the league with 19 assists, and the Crew set a club record by winning 17 games to set up a semifinal series with Midwest rival Kansas City.
"Toward the end of last year we took a couple of steps forward and the important thing is that we were able to build on those things," says forward Alejandro Moreno, who played for Coach Sigi Schmid in Los Angeles and has been a key attacking figure since coming to Columbus midway through the 2007 season. In 52 games (all starts) for Columbus, Moreno has scored 16 goals and registered 11 assists. Those aren't spectacular stats, but solid, and typical of players on the current squad.
"Obviously Brian Carroll has added a lot to our team and certainly now Robbie Rogers is a different player than what we was last year," says Moreno. "The important thing for us is that those young guys - Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven, Brad Evans - perform at a consistent level. We need them game in and game out."
Those three players have combined for just 14 goals, but added to Moreno's nine and Schelotto's seven, the Crew attack presents myriad difficulties for opposing defenses.
The Crew defense may represent Schmid's best work. He moved defensive midfielder Danny O'Rourke alongside former phenom defender Chad Marshall, and this odd pairing has revived Marshall's career and given O'Rourke a much brighter future. Stalwart right back Frankie Hejduk hasn't slowed down, and once Argentine left back Gino Padula recovered from two injury setbacks, his flank has seldom been breached.
This formidable opponent doesn't faze Kansas City, which sputtered through parts of the season, then won five of its last seven thanks in part to a rebirth of Argentina attacker Claudio Lopez and a tactical adjustment that moved Jack Jewsbury from outside back to holding midfielder and brought Davy Arnaud into a central attacking role.
Lopez is the perfect meld of guile, experience, and surprise to upend the league's best team, but only if the Wizards can contain Columbus. Joining veteran Jimmy Conrad on the backline are rookie right back Jonathan Leathers, and two other young players: left back Michael Harrington (second season) and Conrad's partner in the middle, Tyson Wahl (32 MLS games).
"Jonny Leathers is somebody who has really canceled a couple of really big threats in the last couple of games in [New England's] Khano Smith and [San Jose's] Darren Huckerby. We have a ton of confidence in him at this point," says keeper Kevin Hartman, who can certainly help his team by reproducing his brilliant days in LA, when he played for that Schmid fellow.
MLS EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL
Game 1 Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (HDNet, Direct Kick)
KANSAS CITY (11-10-9, 4th) vs.COLUMBUS (17-7-6, 1st)