It may seem like very little time has passed since the Crew hoisted MLS Cup last November. But believe it or not, the time has come for the champs to defend their title.

It may seem like very little time has passed since the Crew hoisted MLS Cup last November. But believe it or not, the time has come for the champs to defend their title.

Columbus begins its 14th Major League Soccer season Saturday in Houston with last year's championship team almost completely intact, including MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Defender of the Year Chad Marshall. They're the consensus pick to claim the cup again.

So you'd think the mood in training camp would be different after three straight years when the preseason goal was just to make the playoffs.

"It's not as different as it's been portrayed," goalkeeper William Hesmer said. The Crew begins this season with confidence, he explained, but not cockiness. They know they have what it takes to win it all, but they're also aware of how hard it is to repeat.

The question is whether the team will be able to marshal the same passion in MLS play now that they've been to the summit.

"We'll see," coach Robert Warzycha said. "To be honest with you, I'm hoping that they're going to play with the intensity they had last year, but that is unknown until the first few games."

Defender Frankie Hejduk offered a word of assurance.

"We all know what's at stake here," said Hejduk, the Crew's longtime captain. "Teams are going to come out probably a little stronger against us just to prove that last year was a fluke, and our job as professionals is to prove them wrong.

"As a professional athlete, you want to always have the toughest challenges," he said. "And this is definitely a tough challenge."

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Pitch shifts

The Crew almost kept its championship lineup intact, but there have been a few significant changes:

Nov. 26: Seattle selects midfielder Brad Evans in the expansion draft. Last season, Evans replaced the injured Adam Moffat in central midfield and became a key contributor. He is the only starter not to return this season.

Dec. 16: Coach Sigi Schmid follows Evans to Seattle, opting to coach the expansion Sounders rather than return to Columbus. His decision is motivated by several factors, including frustration with the Crew's contract proposals and the desire to move closer to his family on the West Coast.

Dec. 22: Longtime assistant and former Crew player Robert Warzycha replaces Schmid as head coach. In a stint as interim coach in 2005, Warzycha led the Crew to a 7-6-3 record.

Jan 9: The Crew trades utility midfielder/defender Stefani Miglioranzi to Los Angeles for a fourth-round pick in the 2010 SuperDraft.

Jan. 15: Columbus drafts midfielder Alex Grendi and defenders Paul Gerstenberger and Chris Clements. Of the three, only Grendi, a winger whose technical skill and crossing ability impress Warzycha, has secured a developmental contract.