Warzycha, Bliss give Crew defense mixed review for 2011

10 shutouts including 4 in a row in 2011 for new defensive group

William Hesmer

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The Columbus Crew had a record-setting season defensively at both ends of the spectrum, making a final grade hard to come by.

On one hand was the team mark of 431 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal, encompassing parts of six early-season games – including four straight shutouts (another record).

Then there was the late stretch when the Crew tied the club record by allowing 12 goals in three games – including a 6-2 pasting at Seattle Sounders FC on Aug. 27.

“Those three games can skew the overall grade, but we also had 10 shutouts,” technical director Brian Bliss said. “There’s something there. You don’t get four [shutouts] in a row, you don’t get 10 in 34 games by accident. But you have look at the flip side. Giving up six [goals], four [goals], two [goals in three consecutive games]; that didn’t happen by accident, either.”

Bliss gives the defensive corps and goalkeepers a “C” for the season – an average mark for team that finished 13-13-8 and whose 1.29 goals against average was 10th of 18 teams.

Coach Robert Warzycha did not give a letter grade, preferring not to spotlight the backline or ‘keepers William Hesmer or Andy Gruenebaum.

“Defending is the entire team,” he said. “I can’t single out the defense. It’s the simple things in soccer. If you don’t have pressure on the ball, the defender is going to have more to do. You need pressure to make the job easier for them. It’s not like they are playing by themselves.”

The Crew underwent a major overhaul along the back line with Chad Marshall, MLS Defender of the Year in 2008 and '09, the lone returnee.

He found a partner in the central defense when Julius James was signed after being released by D.C. United in February, and Chilean right back Sebastián Miranda proved to be more than suitable as a replacement for Frankie Hejduk.

The big worry was left back, where veteran Gino Padula was let go in anticipation of second-year defender Shaun Francis taking over full time. However, injuries limited Francis to six regular-season games.

Converted midfielder Josh Gardner did well and provided quality services at times, and rookie Rich Balchan also played there.

“If Shaun would have had an injury free year, built on what he did the first year, we would have been OK,” Bliss said. “But because he got the injury and came back and didn’t perform particularly well, Josh was filling a hole. It wasn’t his natural spot. Do you go look for something there? If you do, it’s going to cost you money that otherwise you could shore up on your own.”

Warzycha said he is not looking to replace his longtime ‘keepers, but that all options are on the table:

“If you come across a player that is better than what you have and the money is similar, you may make a move,” he said. “You don’t have to, but you may. I’m not saying that [I'm replacing our 'keepers]. The goalkeepers did a good job this year.”

What is clear is that ending the season with a 2-7-1 mark, including a 1-0 playoff loss at Colorado, mainly because of conceding soft goals has the staff concerned.

“Over the last nine games or so, we were vulnerable for goals, so we have to go over and see what we did,” Warzycha said.