"Yeah, there'll be pressure, but that's the kind of pressure you want, right?" says defender Frankie Hejduk, whose audacious run and header produced the goal that polished off the Crew's 3-1 win in MLS Cup 2008 nearly four months ago. "Every team would like to be in our place. We know teams will be out to knock off the champs and that's fine with us. We'll be ready."
Coach Robert Warzycha and his players head to Texas this week for the final portion of its preseason, during which it faces PDL club Laredo Heat on Thursday and the USL-1 Austin Aztex Saturday.
There have been a few setbacks this preseason -- an ice storm wiped out the first day of practice, midfielder Adam Moffat has yet to play a preseason game because of a nagging knee injury, and waterlogged fields forced the cancellation of a training match in England - yet the Crew has steadily steeled itself to defend the first league crown it has ever won.
Only D.C. United (1996-97) and Houston (2006-07) have repeated as champions in league history. Columbus faces tall obstacles - an intensely competitive Eastern conference, the added burden of Concacaf Champions' League games, and the bulls-eye that all winning teams must wear - but since day one complacency has not been apparent.
"Based on the results of the testing they had, they're fitter than last year," said Warzycha of the players' fitness at the start of training camp. "The results of the test showed me they're going to be hungry to win another championship."
Columbus began its preseason schedule in early February with losses to D.C. United (2-1) and USL-1 club Puerto Rico Islanders (2-0) in Florida, and hasn't lost since. In England, the Crew beat a squad of Liverpool reserves, 2-0, and pounded a mixed team of Everton reserves and under-18s, 5-1. Previous coach Sigi Schmid used a preseason trip to Liverpool as a springboard to the 2008 title and Warzycha, an assistant on Schmid's staff as well as predecessor Greg Andrulis, hasn't deviated from a winning formula.
In the absence of Moffat, whose pairing with Brian Carroll in central midfield last year lasted only seven games before ligament tears in Moffat's left knee sidelined him May 31, Warzycha has been testing Emmanuel Ekpo, 21 in the middle. He played mostly on the flanks after joining the Crew last April. Warzycha also has veteran Duncan Oughton, 31, to man the middle along with Carroll.
Columbus may be missing Moffat for the early part of the season, during which it plays three of its first four games - at Houston, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA - on the road. Yet last year, Brad Evans - who went to Seattle in the expansion draft - stepped right in when Moffat was injured, and he's the only notable loss from the 2008 championship team.
"We have a great team, obviously, and it's pretty much the same team," midfielder Robbie Rogers said. "Anything less [than a championship] would be a disappointment for all of us."