Faces of First Kick: Robert Warzycha
COLUMBUS – Robert Warzycha is like the guy who takes a chainsaw to a tree stump at the county fair.
There’s some cutting here and a little preening there, and to some skeptical onlookers it still looks like a block of wood. But to the man wielding the saw, that final product is wholly individual, and truly a piece of art.
Warzycha and the Columbus Crew front office certainly took the saw to one of the most successful clubs in the league this offseason, but it wasn’t just that they began cutting. Just as important was who got left in the sawdust on the floor.
Out the door went Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the team’s leading scorer the past three seasons and MVP when the Crew won their only MLS Cup in 2008. Say goodbye to captain Frankie Hejduk and midfielder Brian Carroll. So long to popular players Steven Lenhart and Duncan Oughton.
There were nine players sent packing in all, most of whom were part of the most successful three-year run in team history.
And, maybe most importantly in all of this, all nine were pieces of the reclamation project of former Crew coach Sigi Schmid. It was Schmid who took a team that had missed the playoffs for three straight years to the summit in 2008 before heading to Seattle and leaving the job to his protégé.
That talented roster, however, was a bit of a blessing and a curse for Warzycha. When the Crew repeated as Supporters’ Shield winners in 2009 in Warzycha’s first season as the top man, he received little credit because critics said he was using Schmid’s players and system.
The same was true last season, when Columbus ran close to the top of the league until fading in the final month.
Then came the Crew’s loss to the Colorado Rapids in the Eastern Conference semifinals, their second consecutive early exit from the postseason under Warzycha and the trigger point for critics the team’s relatively new coach on he couldn’t deliver like his predecessor.
“He was put in a tough position taking over a championship team,” Crew general manager Mark McCullers said. “You’ve really got nowhere to go but down if you look at it that way.”
“He’s getting more confident. He’s more comfortable now,” McCullers said. “Most of all, he’s happy. He’s happy with this group of players. When you’re a leader and in charge you want to put your stamp on it. He has the opportunity now and he’s living in the moment.”
“This is the team he wants and the style of soccer he wants to play,” McCullers added. “That’s why he’s so comfortable — because he believes it in his heart. You have to go with your instincts.”
Here’s what Warzycha’s instincts told him: He had an aging team that, despite its winning ways, was on the decline and needed a boost.
He felt with Schelotto the team was too eager to knock the ball downfield and hope for the best, and they relied heavily on set pieces. Warzycha wanted more opportunities in the box for the wingers, something he deemed unsuitable while having Schelotto as a withdrawn forward.
“I wasn’t complaining about having this or that,” Warzycha said. “It was the best formation for the players we had and the system that suited our personality. I didn’t want to change it because we were getting results. I’m not stupid. I’m not going to change things if we’re going in the right direction. The one thing more than anything is the other teams, after three years, figured out how we’re playing.”
That didn’t mean, though, that Columbus weren’t successful. The Crew were ahead on aggregate at home in the second leg of the MLS Cup Playoffs against Real Salt Lake in 2009 and let it slip away, and were in the same position last season before falling in a shootout in the decisive leg to Colorado.
“Both teams won the championships,” Warzycha said. “The difference between winning the game and losing both times was very, very little.
"We were winning 2-0 against Salt Lake at home and we’re already in the next round. The same against Colorado. The difference was one play. It wasn’t that we were outplayed and didn’t have a chance.”
Still, with this team and the success it’s had in the past three years? Close isn’t close to good enough.
“We’ve accomplished what we’ve wanted to in raising the standards for ourselves and from what our fans expect,” McCullers said. “And with that comes increased pressure, but that’s exactly where we want to be, and [Warzycha] understands that.”
So what exactly did Warzycha do to his lineup? Well aware of that the team was 9-1-1 over the past three season and outscored opponents 21-7 when he Schelotto didn’t play, Warzycha opted for speed and new faces to change the dynamic away from a more sluggish approach that revolved around the Argentine’s play.
He added defender Sebastian Miranda from Chile, Serbian midfielder Dejan Rusmir, a host of rookies and even high-scoring forward Jeff Cunningham, who was exiled from the team in 2005.
“It’s a running man’s game,” technical director Brian Bliss said. “[Warzycha] wants to play more of a methodical buildup to the game as opposed to being a little more direct at times, and also have guys who can play multiple positions and have the flexibility there. That would be a trademark of Robert’s.”
Warzycha also contends the high salaries of several of the players who were released would have prevented the club from keeping some of the other players that add depth.
“If I didn’t do it this year, I would have to do it next year,” he said. “And the question would be, ‘Why didn’t you do it before?’ We have passionate players. The players were here so many years and they were great. They did a great job for us, but there’s a time when you have to change something.
“You can’t accept that we are not going to the playoffs or we are not going to win the championship,” he added. “I felt the changes are necessary for us to be able to win a championship. Are we going to win it? I don’t know, but at least we put ourselves in position so we can. It was time to change a little bit and have a different look, put it that way.”
Building the new roster has taken communication and camaraderie from Warzycha and the front office, but all parties involved appear to be on the same page.
“He knows what he’s looking for,” McCullers said. “I certainly offer my opinion for what it’s worth. We talk more about types of players and positionally what he would like to see and what I would like to see. I have not stepped in the middle of a deal.”
“It’s his team now,” Bliss said. “Go back to the ’09 team and see how many guys are left. The core of the guys are left but if you look at the other general guys there’s probably 12, 15 changes.”
Warzycha is strong in his convictions and won’t be swayed from his opinion that a makeover was needed, even in the wake of a disappointing 3-1 loss at D.C. United in Saturday’s season opener.
“If you look around the league, there’s a three- or four-year cycle where the teams are very good, then they are a little bit off,” he said. “Now after three years of really being on the top as one of the best teams in the league, we need these changes to avoid waiting two or three years to be good again. That’s how I feel.”