COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Crew are facing a serious enough injury crisis that it’s considered a foregone conclusion that rookie Rich Balchan will get the start against Real Salt Lake in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg on Tuesday night (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel).
“It’s definitely a surreal moment and obviously unexpected,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “I’m just trying to stay level-headed and treat it like any other game. But it is an important game – a quarterfinal matchup against a very good RSL team.”
A little more than a month ago, Balchan was busy trying to make a good enough case to get drafted at the 2011 MLS Player Combine. Now he’s being tabbed to start in one of a number of positions for the Columbus Crew, who made him a surprise first-round draft choice at the recent SuperDraft.
If preseason games are an indication, the most likely spot for Balchan against Real Salt Lake is at defensive center midfield.
“It’s the heart of the team right there in the center,” he said. “You have to win the battle in the center of the park to win games. I played d-mid a little in college and it’s definitely been a learning experience. Sometimes my positioning has been a little off, but coaches have been talking to me.”
As a Chelsea fan, Balchan has admired the play of Michael Essien over the years. Crew fans will be hoping that Balchan can replicate an Essien-like performance against arguably the trickiest attacking midfielder in the league in RSL’s Javier Morales.
The Argentine has been one of the primary subjects of the Crew’s video sessions leading up to the first leg at Crew Stadium. It has served as a crash course for Balchan.
“He’s a very good player and very creative,” Balchan said of Morales. “But he drifts out wide and he has a free role for the team. He’s very important to his team and with Kyle Beckerman behind him. They play through those two guys.”
[inline_node:326615]The Indiana University product has had a taste of MLS, although it was just one day. When he was a member of the Chicago Fire’s PDL team in the summer of 2009, Balchan had the opportunity to train with the Fire’s first team.
Growing up in Indianapolis and playing four years at Indiana, Balchan was not new to Crew management although to most he may have been the shock selection of the first round at No. 12.
“The Columbus Crew are close enough to Bloomington and also the coaches [at Indiana] are former Crew players," he said. "They’ve scouted lot of our games. I know they’ve seen a lot of me.”
Balchan became a revelation during this preseason, earning time for the Crew at fullback and central defender before seemingly settling in at central midfield.
The departure of Brian Carroll and Adam Moffatt along with an injury to Kevin Burns has teed up the opportunity for Balchan to make an early first impression.
“I knew it was a good opportunity with the veterans leaving, they have a younger group,” Balchan said of Columbus said. “I just know that what helps is my versatility. In a time of change and adversity there needs to be players who can play in different spots.”
It also helps the Crew that he’s lived and played in many a harsh winter. The cold conditions expected for Tuesday night will not spoil his anticipated professional debut.
The occasion is a pressure-packed affair for Columbus, who go into Tuesday’s match knowing they have lost the only two matches they have played at Rio Tinto Stadium and that RSL has an undefeated streak dating back to May 2009.
“We have to win [Tuesday’s] game, but not because we’re looking at how difficult it can be playing away,” Balchan rebuffed. “We don’t like looking ahead to the matchup at their place.”
Join the chat on MLSsoccer.com for the Columbus Crew-Real Salt Lake CONCACAF Champions League match on Tuesday, beginning at 7:45 pm ET!
<p><a href="http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/join-chat-columbus-crew-real-salt-lake" target="_blank"><img src="http://saltlake-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/mp6/banner2.jpg" alt="" width="620" height="100" /></a></p>