The Crew's title defense has run aground. Let's survey the wreckage.

The Crew's title defense has run aground. Let's survey the wreckage.

Columbus kept its 2008 championship nucleus mostly intact, but that corps wasn't explosive enough to keep the Crew afloat in the 2009 MLS playoffs. The Black and Gold bowed out of the Eastern Conference semifinals last Thursday with a 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake, who took the two-game series 4-2 on aggregate.

Columbus accomplished a lot this year, winning its second straight Supporters' Shield for regular-season dominance while advancing to the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, which will resume in March.

Pulling off both required quite the balancing act, and all the extra action seemed to take its toll. Columbus ended the season on a worse skid than the 0-2-5 mark that began the year, losing five of their last six matches, including three straight at home.

How did Columbus get here, and what can they learn from it?

Death shuffle

Last year's impeccable chemistry stemmed from Coach Sigi Schmid's consistent starting lineup week in and week out. During the busy September-October stretch run, Coach Robert Warzycha had no choice but to shuffle his lineups in order to keep guys fresh, but at season's end he kept tinkering.

Schmid understood that in crunch time, you put your best players on the field, regardless of recent performances. Warzycha took a page from maligned ex-Crew Coach Greg Andrulis (see: 2004 playoffs) and benched Guillermo Barros Schelotto in game 1 of the playoffs and Robbie Rogers in game 2.

Next year, whenever possible, the Polish Rifle should stick to his guns.

Vets get sloppy

I'm not ready to put Frankie Hejduk out to pasture yet, but more than Warzycha, he's the series goat. The captain's mental mistakes led directly to three of Salt Lake's goals. He needs to be sharper or risk getting replaced by the less flashy but more consistent Jed Zayner.

Alejandro Moreno, on the other hand, may have worn out his welcome. No one is acknowledging that he reprised his 2008 role well Thursday, receiving balls with his back to goal and playing along quick flicks to on-rushing teammates.

But Moreno looked slower than ever out there, and his constant dives came back to bite him when he was legitimately fouled in the box - he received a yellow card rather than a penalty kick for his efforts. His reputation is ruined.

Versatility rules

The Crew's top performers this year were hard-nosed players who can perform lots of roles. Danny O'Rourke and Eddie Gaven had career years. On the flip side, Emmanuel Ekpo's one-footed, inconsistent play was maddening.

Repeat titles don't come easy: But, as ever, there's always next year.