Crew midfielder Ekpo no longer a pushover

Nigerian bulks up after rough 2010 season, sees instant results

OBETZ, Ohio – Emmanuel Ekpo was just tired of getting pushed around.

So the Columbus Crew midfielder – who is best known for slashing runs that have kept MLS defenders on their heels since 2008 – hit the weight room with team fitness coach Mike Tremble this offseason in attempt to shake the reputation that he was prone to being easily pushed aside.

The extra workouts have worked out this seaosn for Ekpo, who figures to serve as an integral part of the Columbus offense during a year of upheaval for one of the league’s steadiest franchises.

“I need to be strong on the field,” Ekpo said. “I’ve built up some muscle and I need it because the game of soccer is about contact and I have to keep the ball more. I have to gain more stamina, and coupled with my speed, it will be fine for me.”

Ekpo failed to score a goal or notch an assist in 24 appearances last season, a substantial drop from two goals and a career-high six assists in 2009. That dip in performance was enough for Ekpo to seek out Tremble, who has helped the Nigerian import bulk up a bit from when he tipped the scales at 165 pounds last season.

“He’s added three pounds of muscle in the offseason and his body fat is down,” Tremble said. “His core strength is really what we focused on to make him a bit more solid for consideration in being on the ball.”

“His strength on the ball is vastly improved over last year,” he added. “It doesn’t seem he’s getting pushed down as much.”

It might be unfair to call Ekpo the replacement for Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but he’s essentially filling the Argentine’s old position this season. When the Crew decided not to bring Schelotto back coach, Robert Warzycha cited a desire to switch to a pair of strikers in the box as opposed to the Argentine playing underneath a lone forward.

The new strategy was used in the opening 3-1 loss at D.C. United on March 19, with Cunningham playing up top with Andres Mendoza. In the past two games Warzycha has reverted to a 4-4-1-1 with Mendoza going solo and Ekpo underneath.

“He’s enjoying the game,” Warzycha said. “He’s getting fitter and playing more games. He feels like he can contribute.”

Look no further than last Friday’s 2-0 win over visiting FC Dallas, when Ekpo drew a penalty on FCD defender George John in the 53rd minute thanks to a speedy burst into the box and a strong challenge for a loose ball.

“He was much closer to the ball than I was, but I knew I had to put on my speed so I can reach out for the ball,” Ekpo said. “Because he was coming for the ball, he had to get me on my foot. It paid off.”