[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] The new season has come early -- perhaps too early -- for the Columbus Crew. The forecast is for temperatures to be in the 20s with
flurries when the depleted Crew hosts Real Salt Lake Tuesday night (TV: Fox Soccer Channel, 8 pm ET) in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal series.
Real Salt Lake is the heavy favorite in the series, which assures MLS of one team in the semifinals of the regional club championship.
RSL returns its entire starting lineup from the 2010 MLS playoffs, including 2010 Best XI picks Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave and Javier Morales and 2010 Newcomer of the Year Alvaro Saborio, who was elevated to Designated Player status in 2011.
U.S. World Cup forward Robbie Findley signed as a free agent with English club Nottingham Forest, but Saborio's success relegated Findley to a reserve role as RSL coach Jason Kreis preferred Argentine Fabian Espindola as his second striker.
RSL picked up dangerous Arturo Alvarez in the offseason and won the lottery for Cody Arnoux.
On the other hand, Columbus gutted its team.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the Crew's undisputed kingpin, didn't return, and three other starters from the 2008 championship team -- Frankie Hejduk (Los Angeles), Brian Carroll (Philadelphia) and Gino Padula (option declined) aren't back.
Also gone are 10-year veteran Duncan Oughton, Adam Moffat, Jason Garey and Steven Lenhart, who have all contributed in recent years.
To make matters worse, the Crew goalie William Hesmer hasn't recovered from shoulder surgery. With his backup, Andy Gruenebaum, also out of action, former FC Dallas goalkeeper Ray Burse Jr., who played at Ohio State, has been brought in.
The Crew hoped second-year players Dilly Duka and Shaun Francis will get lots of minutes this season, but both are questionable for the RSL game with injuries.
The Crew has signed Chilean defender Sebastian Miranda and hopes to soon add Serbian playmaker Dejan Rusmir; draft picks Justin Meram and Rich Balchan have shown promise in preseason.