Francis rejoins Crew training, weeks from return

Second-year defender faces long road back from hamstring tear

OBETZ, Ohio – When a sprained ankle kept Columbus Crew defender Shaun Francis out of the first four games of the 2010 season, his absence was barely noticed.

The rookie had been the penultimate pick (63rd overall) of the MLS SuperDraft and was slated to get limited minutes with veteran Gino Padula holding down the left back spot. But by the end of the year, Francis had won the job and started both MLS Cup Playoffs games while also making his first five appearances for Jamaica’s national team, scoring once.

His hopes for a better start to this season were dashed when he suffered a torn hamstring Feb. 17 during a preseason game in Arizona and he may be several weeks away from being available to coach Robert Warzycha.

“I wouldn’t expect to be thrown into an MLS game right away because it’s a serious injury,” said Francis, who rejoined training on Tuesday. “You have to gradually build up and play a couple of reserve games and then move on from there.”

While rookie Rich Balchan took over for Francis and helped the Crew (2-1-3) to a team-record 414 minutes without allowing a goal until Toronto FC’s Tony Tchani scored last weekend, not having the speedy Francis running the left side has hurt the attack.

Balchan has quickness and has been a steady defender but he doesn’t yet possess some of the offensive skills Francis acquired through 12 MLS appearances in 2010. The Crew have just five goals and Francis’ return could provide a boost by keeping the defense honest with his overlapping runs while supporting winger Robbie Rogers.

Warzycha still has time to decide who will start, but Francis already knows what he has to do earn a first-team call.

“In my mind, I have to be a part both offensively and defensively,” he said. “That’s part of my game, going up and helping the team get chances.”

Watching his teammates’ success has been uplifting as well as difficult.

“They are doing a good job,” Francis said. “We’re getting chances but the goals aren’t coming right now. Eventually they will. You go through injuries but this year is tougher because I expect more of myself and to be a bigger part of this team.”