Foremost among the reasons for signing former LA Galaxy midfielder Chris Birchall to a multi-year contract on Monday is the Columbus Crew’s 2-4-2 record.
The numbers tell the story for a side that’s struggling through a crater full of injuries, forcing Robert Warzycha to rely on young players who are still learning about the speed of the game at the professional level.
“He is a quality player who has experience,” Warzycha said on Monday. “If you want to close the game or score in the end, you need experience on the field. Sometimes with so many young players we don’t have it, especially with all the injuries. You can’t always put so many things on their shoulders.”
Of the 17 players who dressed for Saturday’s 0-0 tie at Portland, 10 were in their third year or less and the only bench player with more than 20 games played in MLS was 24-year-old defender Shaun Francis.
The England-born Birchall, who turned 28 on Saturday, can remedy that. He has 39 caps for Trinidad and Tobago via his mother’s citizenship and played three matches in the 2006 World Cup for the Soca Warriors.
He also appeared in 57 matches for the Galaxy, including 46 starts, before being released after LA won the MLS Cup last November.
Birchall's primary spot is defensive midfield, but he can also play on the right flank. He told the Crew's official website that he sees himself as the anchor between the defense and midfield, with his primary job being to “…win a lot of tackles and win the balls and get the ball to the attackers that can do the damage.”
Another factor in the acquisition of Birchall was the health of holding midfielder Danny O’Rourke, who played only six games last season due to knee surgery. He’s started all but two matches this year.
“Danny’s been pretty darn good for us the last two or three weeks, but something could happen to him and he misses five weeks in a row,” technical director Brian Bliss said. “It was kind of a preemptive strike.”
The Crew thought they had a deal for Birchall in early January but he decided to pursue options in Australia that eventually fell through. He had been training with his former English club, Port Vale, when talks with Columbus resumed three weeks ago.
To make room for Birchall, the Crew placed goalkeeper William Hesmer on the season-ending injured reserve list. He underwent microfracture surgery on his right hip last month.
Second-year defensive midfielder/defender Rich Balchan is a few weeks away from returning after sports hernia surgery, and when he is activated the Crew will also place forward Tommy Heinemann (left knee surgery) on the season-ending IR.
Another move will have to be made at the end of June when Costa Rican forward Jairo Arrieta joins the team.