Big Ten rookies make it count for Crew

Meram, Balchan combine to help Columbus

Robert Warzycha and Rich Balchan

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There was a lot at play on the stunning stoppage-time goal that
rescued a point Saturday for the Crew in a 1-1 tie vs. New York in Red
Bull Arena.

Not only were the principles first-round picks in the 2011 MLS
SuperDraft, but goal-scorer Rich Balchan (12th overall from Indiana) and
set-up man Justin Meram (18th overall, Michigan) are Big Ten products
as well as roommates on this road trip.

“There’s nothing better than my roommate, Rich Balchan getting on the
end for his first goal,” Meram said after the match. “I’m very proud of
him.”

WATCH: FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

What’s more, Meram was supposed to replace Balchan in the 74th minute,
but midfielder Dilly Duka, who sprained his right ankle in the opening
10 minutes and could miss Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake, told
coach Robert Warzycha he could no longer go.

“I sprained it in the first 10 minutes of the game,” Duka said. “I saw a
sub coming and I think they were going to push me into the middle so I
told Bobby I had to come out. I knew I couldn’t contribute anymore. I
knew I couldn’t track on defense and couldn’t do anything on offense
because my ankle swelled up. It’s huge.”

The fourth official changed the substitute board from Balchan’s No. 2
to 11 and the course of the game was changed, albeit at the last moment.

New York (4-2-7) got a goal from Mehdi Ballouchy in the ninth minute
and appeared headed to victory as most of the 20,393 fans — except for
the boisterous 100 or so Crew supporters — were ready to celebrate.

The Red Bulls had the ball in the right corner for most of the posted
two minutes of added time before Jeff Cunningham was able to strip the
ball in the Crew’s own third. He got it to Shaun Francis, who sent a sky
ball past midfield where Emmanuel Ekpo did a masterful job of holding
off several Red Bulls before knocking it down the left side to Meram.

“We had to get the ball because it was deep in our own half,” Ekpo
explaind. “We had to get out and get more men in front of it and build
off that. I saw the ball and went for it. It was one of those chances
you have to take. It paid off. I got the ball to Justin and he made a
very good run.”

With the clock inching toward 1:45 of extra time, Meram — who made his
MLS debut last week against Chivas USA — dribbled toward the corner then
cut toward the goal and sent a crafty ball to the middle of the goal
box.

“When you go to the line you have to lay it back because you know
you’re teammates are running,” Meram said. “I saw black [uniform] in my
eye because I’m running full speed. Once I played it, I looked up and
saw him.”

Balchan raced in from his holding midfielder position, took the ball in stride and scored with his right foot.

“I knew the game was coming to an end and I saw Justin make a beautiful
run,” Balchan said. “I had what was left of me and made a run and left
it on the field. There’s no time to think. It’s all reactive. The ball
was put perfectly on my foot. I opened my foot up a little bit and put
it far post.”

How unlikely was the goal? It was Balchan’s first shot in his MLS career after 990 minutes.

“I don’t do much finishing in practice,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I hit the ball and it went in.”

While the goal was dramatic and might give the Crew (3-3-6) a boost
heading into the next match, the fact is they are 0-2-3 in their past
five games and are 1-2-4 over seven games.

“I think we played well enough to deserve a point,” Warzycha said. “I
think we were a good attacking team. I think we were going for the
goal.”

He may have some decisions to make for the next game because starting
forward Tommy Heinemann left in the first half with a left hamstring
injury and Dilly could join him on the sideline. For now, the Crew will
take some satisfaction out of the point against the Red Bulls.

“The rookies came in with a last-minute goal and caught them by surprise,” Duka said.