When the Crew suffered a second straight premature playoff collapse last fall, the club replaced many of its popular players with a cast of unknowns.

When the Crew suffered a second straight premature playoff collapse last fall, the club replaced many of its popular players with a cast of unknowns.

Team brass insisted they were keeping the Crew's core intact - they held on to Chad Marshall, Eddie Gaven, Danny O'Rourke and other seasoned young pros - but the departure of so many heroes from the 2008 championship was tough to stomach.

Sensible, objective Crew supporters rationalized the moves. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the former MLS MVP, was too expensive for his age. Frankie Hejduk, the longtime captain and World Cup veteran, was losing a step. Steven Lenhart, a loveable pest with a knack for clutch goals, reportedly did not want to be here.

Still, sending 10 players away was traumatic for fans. And when the Crew didn't bring in big names to replace them, many wondered if the brain trust's "younger and faster" plan was strategic enough.

The Crew has often looked as green as expected. Despite less-than-stellar play, they gutted their way into playoff contention, but as recently as June 12, when Chicago stole a 1-0 win in Columbus, the new-look Crew seemed pedestrian at best.

Little by little, though, the fresh faces have been proving their worth, and in the last two MLS matches - a 2-0 win in Houston and a 4-1 home shellacking of Colorado - everything came together.

Rookie Rich Balchan, steadfast in midfield and defense since day one, scored a stoppage-time equalizer in New York. The assist came from rookie forward Justin Meram, who is quickly becoming an ace setup man. Journeyman defender Josh Gardner notched the game-winner against Real Salt Lake.

Rookie forward Bernardo Anor logged a goal and an assist in his first start June 18 in Houston. Forward Tom Heinemann, promoted from minor-league Carolina, scored against Colorado on Sunday. Rookie Cole Grossman beat the keeper in a U.S. Open Cup match Tuesday.

Then there's 33-year-old forward Andres Mendoza. Mendoza infuriated fans this year with lazy play and flubbed chances that belied his nearly $600,000 contract. But he caught fire this month, scoring six goals in his last six matches.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. A rookie-heavy lineup fumbled Tuesday's Open Cup game against minor-league Richmond, and formidable challenges await, including Saturday's contest at powerhouse FC Dallas. But for now, things are looking bright in Crewville.