*Update Andy Iro and Leandre Griffit traded to TFC for Tony Tchani.
Columbus supporters must feel better about this trade (I know I do) now that we've learned that it was for a real, living, breathing human being and not a pick in a future MLS SuperDraft, as we've become accustomed to. There are still questions . . . big, important questions . . . about the lack of depth at center back. Signing Julius James earlier this month to a multi-year (yeah, I know) contract extension all but proclaimed that the end was near for Iro's Crew career; but, with James's reckless forays with the ball and inexplicable mental lapses (he should be forced to wear a scarlet letter "C" on his shirt for the rest of the year for the goal given up to Chicago on June 12), his tendency to go cowboy in the penalty area needs to be corrected immediately. Danny O'Rourke, with his big Black & Gold heart and his tendency to commit ill-timed penalties, is now the experienced defender who would be called upon to step into the starting slot should James give us another debacle like Chicago . . . but anyone who wants James out probably shouldn't hold their breath. It's going to be Marshall and James playing in front of Will Hesmer for the rest of the season. Let's hope Will and Chad stay healthy.
Another big, important question is how good is Tony Tchani, really? There's no way to answer this question to satisfaction until he has a few caps with Columbus. He's young. He has potential. He's worn the colors of 3 teams this season (New York, Toronto, now Columbus) and has scored 2 goals in 42 Major League Soccer appearances; both, coincidentally, against us. In 2010, for the New York Red Bulls:
And earlier this year, for Toronto FC (at about 2:30):
Tchani definitely has potential to be a positive force in the Columbus attack. I doubt that he's a realistic option for shoring up depth at center back, as has been mentioned by some, unless injuries leave the team so depleted that it left Robert Warzycha no choice. Trading for Tchani must prove to be, first and foremost, a trade to improve the offensive attack. Too often this season and at crucial times in 2010, the Crew have allowed opponents (at times, lesser opponents) to determine the run of play. Going back to 2008, this team has always played better soccer when it is the aggressor. Justin Meram's attacking play off the bench against New York that set up Rich Balchan's stoppage time goal is the play of the year so far. That match turned on Meram's aggression, and that has to be what Tchani brings as DM. Any time he spends as a reserve center back is wasted time.
On the other side of the trade, it stinks to see a Crew veteran, quality person, and capable contributor like Andy Iro traded to the ongoing disaster that is Toronto FC. Iro was one of the few remaining players who were with the Crew during the Massive Season of 2008. He contributed in spot roles in 2008 and 2009, and then came on in 2010 to seemingly lock-down a starting spot at center back alongside Chad Marshall. There were always complaints and criticisms from some supporters that his footwork wasn't good enough, that his speed wasn't good enough, that his heading of the ball wasn't good enough, and that he seemed unable at times to impose his will using his considerable size advantage on smaller players. But another sign of a promising professional is when they seem to recognize when criticisms are based in truth, and they are willing to work to address them as challenges and not insults. That's what Iro did in late 2009 and through 2010. He was without question the most improved player on this team over the last three years. One of his best games of 2010 was, ironically, the match at Red Bull Arena where Tchani scored his first MLS goal. Iro scored a tremendous header in the 3-1 victory, and played solid defense against New York's much quicker attackers (Iro goal 1:36):
Iro had a solid rest of 2010 and showed improvement in all of the parts of the game for which he was criticized. He went on to win the 2010 Crew Coaches' Award:
Crew Coaches Award 2010 Winner- Andy IroSelected by the Crew coaching staff, the Coaches Award is presented to the player or players they considered to be the most coachable and to possess all of the characteristics of a true team player, including attitude and work ethic. This year’s winner is [Andy] Iro, who became a fixture at central defense in his third season in Black & Gold, forming one of the league’s top partnerships with Chad Marshall, while also developing into an offensive weapon with six goals in all competitions.And when the roster that earned a quarterfinal berth in the CONCACAF Champions' League was flung apart in November 2010 via trades and drafts and unceremonious releases of legends, there was at least the knowledge that our center backs were rock-solid . . . or so we thought. Injuries to Marshall, Hesmer, Gruenebaum left Iro wearing the armband and the only familiar face we had in defense for those crucial February matches. He played and led well against a Real Salt Lake side with more talent, more experience, and more league support. He wore the armband in the manner of a player who wanted to lead this team into the season. But the return of Chad Marshall from injury made Iro's captaincy short-lived, and the sudden addition of James made starting center back jobs scarce. When Iro did get time on the pitch this season he played well. Coming on in the RSL regular season match, he solidified a faltering defense late in the match and helped Columbus hold on for a win. Typically sketchy MLS officiating got him sent-off in Dallas; but, again, the Crew's absence of offense against a powerful attacking team left the defense exposed to take shot after shot after shot while the opponent was unworried by our lack of a consistent attack.
In a conversation after the FCD loss, I mentioned to someone that I thought Dallas might be the last time we saw Iro in a Columbus uniform. The timing of James's contract extension was too coincidental at the beginning of a month when so many transactions were about to commence. A choice had been made, and it was a bit sad to see Iro go out that way. As a fan of Iro, there is a better moment that I'll prefer to remember as his last with Columbus. After the terrible US Open Cup loss to Richmond, the Nordecke (which, as has become custom during woefully attended USOC matches at Crew Stadium, had moved to the south end of he stadium) sang to the players "Columbus 'Til I Die" as we always do, win or lose. The players walked away from us, sulking off the field in a demoralizing display of dispiritedness that I haven't seen at Crew Stadium in years. Even after the horrible 0-4 trouncing to Seattle last year, Brian Carroll, Will Hesmer, Frankie Hejduk and a few others came up to the fans who had cheered and drummed non-stop throughout the match, and that buoyed our spirits. But the Richmond Kickers had come to Crew Stadium and not only beaten the team, they crushed their pride.
Only two players noticed how wrong this was: Rich Balchan, a rookie who hadn't even played in the match, and Andy Iro, who had been an 88th minute sub. They came across the field to uphold tradition and maintain pride in their team and their city. While the rest of the team slunk back into the tunnel, totally defeated, Balchan and Iro, and the Nordecke, remained Columbus 'Til We Die.**
As with all good trades, both sides should feel like they got something big, and both sides should feel like they lost something big, too. There will be plenty of time to determine which side got the better of this deal, and anyone who says that the Crew brain-trust got over on the TFC FO due to the Canadians' propensity for perpetual panic could very well be right. But there is still the small matter of the second half of the season and, specifically, the Trillium Cup return leg on September 10. Should Julius James play in that rivalry match the way that he played in the rivalry match against Chicago, then Guillermo help us all.
**EPILOGUE: The night of the trade, Iro was interviewed by Columbus Dispatch Crew reporter Shawn Mitchell:
And on the evening of July 16, the first match after the trade, he made one more appearance in Crew Stadium, wearing his Columbus Crew away shirt and walking through the Nordecke, saying his goodbyes to the supporters (photo from BigSoccer, posted by the eternal Captain Splarg):
A player walking through the supporters' section to say "thank you" immediately after he was traded to an arch-rival, and being serenaded and wished "good luck": that's not something that you'll see happen anywhere other than with Columbus supporters at Columbus Crew Stadium. That's what this city's about.