With CCL looming, Crew lineup still uncertain

Francis, Duka injured in final tuneup before Real Salt Lake match

PHOENIX – The Crew’s preseason effectively ended with a thud here on Thursday, and not just because the team is leaving town on the heels of a second straight loss.

Head coach Robert Warzycha’s team heads home to wintry Ohio with their sights set on a crucial Feb. 22 CONCACAF Champions League tilt against Real Salt Lake, but it’s tough to imagine they’ll forget what happened against the Houston Dynamo on a sun-bleached practice field in Arizona.

Most importantly, they may have lost both Shaun Francis and Dilly Duka to injuries, a potentially serious blow ahead of the first leg of the two-game aggregate-goal series.

“With all the injuries we’re facing in the preseason, it’s difficult to predict who’s going to be out there on Tuesday,” Warzycha said after the 4-2 loss. “We saw it today. Your lineup can be destroyed in a minute.”

Crew officials did not comment on the severity or specifics of either injury, but both Francis and Duka had to be subbed out of the game with their own issues.

Francis went down just five minutes into the match after a collision and had to be helped off the field, favoring his left leg. Duka asked to leave the match midway through the second of three 40-minute periods while favoring his abdomen and didn’t return.

“Two of our guys went down today,” Warzycha said. “We’ll have to wait and see if they’re OK to go on Tuesday.”

The CCL match poses a potentially daunting task for this Crew team, which underwent perhaps more changes than any other club in the league during the offseason. On Thursday they trotted out a starting lineup likely similar to what they’ll have against RSL, but that certainly doesn’t mean they have all the answers yet.

The Crew allowed two goals off of corner kicks on Thursday, a cause for concern as they face an RSL team that thrives off of set plays with free kick specialist Javier Morales.

“We’re giving up goals too easily on set pieces, and that’s important. That’s something we need to fix,” Warzycha said. “But I think we’re headed in the right direction, and these guys are getting more time together every day.”

Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers, meanwhile, isn’t willing to put much stock into a somewhat murky preseason leading up to the biggest game of the year thus far. They posted remarkably polemic results during their time in Arizona, including an impressive win over Seattle followed by consecutive losses to Colorado and Houston.

“It’s always difficult to judge anything in preseason,” Rogers said. “The year we won the MLS Cup, I think we lost every game in the preseason. This game is just going to come down to us fighting, because it’s not always pretty this early in the season, it’s about which teams can find a way to win.”

One positive ahead of the RSL match is the Crew’s familiarity with head coach Jason Kreis’ bunch. Salt Lake made only a few tweaks to their group during the offseason, and will likely boast a starting lineup very similar to the one that won their CONCACAF group stage last fall.

The Crew likely need to get a solid result at Crew Stadium before the series concludes at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 1. The Crew are winless in two regular-season games at Rio Tinto over the past two seasons, and have been outscored 6-0 during those matches.

“We’ve struggled at Rio Tinto, so we know getting a result at our place is very important,” defender Andy Iro said. “Eight or nine months ago, whether or our focus was totally on this tournament, I think we would have maybe put more on the league and making the playoffs.

“Now that we’re here,” Iro added, “why wouldn’t we go for it? Our focus has to be getting a big-time result at home.”