After serving as a rotational player in his first two seasons with the Crew, Tony Tchani is now playing a major role in the Black & Gold's early success in 2014 as a force in the Columbus midfield.
WIth the fresh perspective of first-year Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, Tchani knew he'd have his chance to be a regular starter in 2014. However, it was no easy task as the Cameroonian-born midfielder fought through a preseason injury to earn a spot in Berhalter's starting XI.
"Tony had a little bit of an injury in the beginning of the season and he just kept fighting, kept working through it," Berhalter said of the midfielder. "He's been doing great. "
Added Tchani: "I always try to work hard every day to prove to the new coach that I deserve to be [in the starting lineup]. It wasn't easy. In the offseason I had an injury, but now it's fine. I got lucky that I got to play a few preseason games to show the coaching staff that I deserve to be out there."
Paired with Wil Trapp centrally, Tchani has helped the Crew midfield become one of MLS's best in keeping possession. The key, Tchani says, is the understanding he has with his running mate.
"We're playing so well because Wil is a guy that likes to sit and I'm like a box-to-box guy," he said. "I like being next to Wil when we're playing defense. When we're on offense, I'm a little bit higher. It's worked pretty well so far. "
Tchani's play on the field has resulted in-part thanks to the confidence Berhalter has instilled in him. Hailed as a "players' coach" when he was hired in November, Berhalter has found a way to get the most of each player in his squad.
"He's a coach that is always coming in and talking to the guys," Tchani said of his coach. "Not only the starters, but also the guys that may not play or the guys on the bench. He always talks to the guys and makes them comfortable. He makes the guys feel like they all have a chance. If someone else is not playing, it's their turn to step up and do the same job."
Even Tchani's teammates have taken notice of his increased role and the leadership that has come of it.
"He's matured as a player," Josh Williams complimented Tchani. "That's something I think Gregg had something to do with, he had a big part of it: just staying focused for 90 minutes, just always being there picking up his teammates. In the center of the park, you have to be a leader of some sort. He's not much of a vocal kind of guy. He just let's his play do the talking.
"He's been more of a leader, a field general."
The Crew remain near the top of this week's Power Rankings following its 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes. The Black & Gold's highest mark is on Sports Illustrated's Planet Fútbol list, coming in at the number two spot behind Real Salt Lake. See the full rankings below.
MLSsoccer.com: 5 (4)
ESPNFC: 6 (5)
For his performance against the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday, Federico Higuaín was named to MLSsoccer.com's Team of the Week for Week Six. With four goals and six assists already this season, Higuaín has earned Team of the Week honors three times through five matches in 2014.
For the first time in his life, Crew midfielder Hector Jimenez is adjusting to life outside of California. Born in Huntington Park outside of Los Angeles, raised in Bell Gardens, schooled at Cal-Berkeley and spending the first three years of his career with the LA Galaxy, Jimenez is anxious to return to the Golden State this weekend when the Crew faces the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday (3:00 p.m. ET / UniMas, Time Warner Cable SportsChannel).
Jimenez is anticipating many of his friends and family in attendance at Buck Shaw Stadium, making the five-hour drive from Southern California.
"This is a game that when I was in LA, I looked forward to the most," Jimenez said after the Crew's Wednesday training session. "I trained with [the Earthquakes] during the summer and stuff like that. It'll be a good game for me, my family is coming up. The team is excited. Hopefully we can get on a winning streak again."
Winning two MLS Supporters' Shields in three seasons with the Galaxy, Jimenez can't help but view the 'Quakes as a rival.
I think [Galaxy vs. Earthquakes] is one of the biggest rivalries in the League, to be honest, during those years I was in LA. It's a team that you go and play at their field, they don't want to lose points."
This weekend marks the only trip the Crew will make to California this season as it hosts the Galaxy and Chivas USA in Columbus later in 2014. Jimenez will surely make the most of his limited return home.
"Just California, the sunshine," answered when asked what he missed most about the Golden State.
"I went to school in the Bay Area. I have a lot of friends still there, so it will be good to see them and play well in front of them."
The only downside of versatility is never knowing where a player might line-up on the field.
Though he's featured solely at centerback in his first season with the Black & Gold, Michael Parkhurst has featured at both left and rightback for the U.S. Men's National Team. Most recently, the Crew Captain put in a solid 90-minute performance in a 2-2 draw with Mexico last week.
Following Wednesday's training session in Obetz, Parkhurst could be seen working on his crosses from the left side. With the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil steadily approaching, Parkhurst is working to stay sharp should he get the call from National Team Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
"I just want to make sure every now and then I'm hitting some crosses from the left and the right because you never know when I'll play there for the Crew or for the National Team," he said. "I just want to be able to have a good performance whenever I'm called upon to be an outside back."
In his tenth season as a pro, Parkhurst has earned 25 caps for the Stars and Stripes and is in competition for the United States' final 23-man roster for this summer's World Cup.
Saturday's 2-0 loss to Toronto FC ended the Crew's perfect record and saw the the Black & Gold slip in this week's Power Rankings. After sitting atop ESPNFC and Sports Illustrated's rankings last week, the Crew still lands in the top five in both outlets' lists and comes in at the number four position in MLSSoccer.com's weekly rankings. See the full Power Rankings below.
MLSSoccer.com: 4 (2)
ESPNFC: 5 (1)
Crew defender Ross Friedman picked up an assist in Dayton Dutch Lions FC's 1-0 win to open USL-PRO play over the weekend against the Charlotte Eagles. Friedman found Dayton forward Brock Granger on a corner kick for the match-winner in the 40th minute. Fellow Crew loanees Kevan George, Matt Walker and Aaron Schoenfeld also saw action for the Dutch Lions in the win. Schoenfeld nearly doubled Dayton's lead, but his shot from outside the box hit the woodwork just ahead of the halftime whistle.
"I'm just really happy."
In the middle of a chilly April downpour in Central Ohio, that's how Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark says he's adjusting to life in Columbus after spending the last four years playing abroad in Norway. Born and raised in Michigan, Clark is happy to back in the warmth of Midwest hospitality.
"I'm really happy, that's all I can really say," he said with a smile. "I keep saying that because it's the truth. I'm just super happy. It's simple, but it's the truth."
For Clark and his fiancee, Carella, it's the simple things like baseball and American television they enjoy about living life back Stateside.
"We're just kind of still happy to be in the States. It's kind of hard to understand, but when you leave you're just kind of happy here. When you leave the country for four years, you don't take for granted just being here. That may seem strange, but everything is good."
He continued: "Watching the news, or just watching American programs -- I haven't had March Madness in years. I haven't had [Major League Baseball] in four years. Those things are very exciting."
Undefeated and averaging less than one goal against in three matches so far this season, the soccer transition has been positive as well -- but not just for Clark.
Carella played collegiately at Appalachian State University and at Clark's alma mater, Oakland University. Now, she's helping out with coaching on the girls' side of the Crew's youth development system.
"She's coaching, she's trying to talk lineups with me, trying to talk strategy," Clark laughs. "We're a soccer house through and through."
Less than four months after moving to Ohio, it seems the future Clark family has found a home in Columbus.
Crew defender Michael Parkhurst earned his 25th cap for the United States on Wednesday in the United States' 2-2 draw with Mexico at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Parkhurst made his second-straight start at leftback, and played the full 90 minutes in the draw.
The Crew Captain is due back in Columbus ahead of the Black & Gold's Trillum Cup clash with Toronto FC, presented by Scotts, on Saturday.
Crew Soccer Academy midfielders George Braima and Ben Swanson were recently called-up to represent the United States at the U-17 and U-18 levels, respectively.
Braima and the U-17 U.S. Men's National Team head to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Josip Katalinski International Tournament and two international friendlies in Zagreb, Croatia. In the Katalinski Tournament, the U.S. takes on Montenegro and Sarajevo Select before wrapping up play in the tournament against either the Bosnia U-17 National Team, Belgrade Select or the Macedonia U-17 National Team in a placement match. In Zagreb, the U.S. plays Croatia on April 8 and April 10.
Swanson and the U.S. U-18 squad will stay stateside for a camp that includes a friendly with Canada on April 8 and another against Mexico on April 12. Swanson recently trained with the Crew First Team following the Copa del Atlantico in the Canary Islands.