Chris Birchall, signed in May, was another midseason to the tweak to the Crew roster. Not content with the youthful options at defensive midfield, Robert Warzycha and the rest of the staff brought in the Englishman to provide veteran leadership in the middle of the field. He ended up seeing action in 18 games, with 17 of them starts.
The Black and Gold had settled on the late Kirk Urso early in the season as the starting defensive midfielder, but injury had limited his playing time by late April. With Danny O'Rourke also facing periodic stints on the sidelines, the Crew were quite thin at holding midfielder when Birchall was signed.
After a layoff of six months, it took Birchall two and a half weeks to make an appearance, 24 minutes to close out a Crew win, but he would soon become a regular in Warzycha's lineup. Starting with the Crew's June loss to Chicago, Birchall would start 10 straight games. He'd be rested once during the team's busy stretch in August and make three more starts. After being Warzycha's go to utility midfielder throughout the summer, he closed out the season by appearing in four of the team's final seven games.
Birchall fits the mold of a battling defensive midfielder. He's technically sound, but not flashy. He can be drawn out or beaten with speed, but he's savvy enough to slow down an opposing player. He's rarely beaten, even if he has to resort to fouling. He's not a possession based holding midfielder; he's a battler.
Offensively, Birchall is a bit limited. He can be erratic with his touches and his passing is poorer than many others who play in defensive midfield for the Crew this year. This lessens his value as he will pick up the ball off of the opposition, but often quickly give it back.
Birchall has made it clear he prefers being in the center, but he's lined up at right midfield several times. His crossing isn't a strong suite of his game so he makes more of an impact when he can tuck in centrally and clog the middle. Warzycha would use him this way when needing an extra presence in the center, essentially leaving the width to an overlapping Sebastian Miranda.
Birchall will likely be a key role player on the 2013 team. He faces some competition for his spot as Rich Balchan returns to full health and could line up at defensive midfield. If he can sharpen his passes, he can be the "water carrier" for both Milovan Mirosevic and Federico Higuain while providing stout defensive cover for the back line.
Final Grade - 5: He's not blessed with speed or is highly athletic, but he will put in a tremendous work rate.