If "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," as the king himself utters in "Henry IV, Part II," the word hasn't been passed to members
of the Columbus Crew.
"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
"Anything less [than a championship] would be a disappointment for all of us."