Leader of the Pack

Vinyl banners depicting Columbus Crew heroes adorn the sides of Crew Stadium. Club legends and members of the 2008 MLS Cup-winning squad, such as Chad Marshall and Andy Gruenebaum, stare with pursed lips and confrontational poses as you pass through the main entrance gate.

These banners are relics from a bygone era in Crew history, however, and as current players enter their home ground for preseason preparations Jan. 24, they don’t give much attention to Marshall and Gruenebaum flapping in the winter breeze.

While seated at the bar inside the stadium’s Upper 90 club suite, Crew forward Dominic Oduro is quick to pay homage to the likes of Marshall, Gruenebaum and other fan-favorites who departed during a busy offseason for the franchise.

“You’ve got to use [them leaving] as a motivation in the first place,” Oduro said. “Those are some guys that I was lucky to play with and against, and they did great for this club.”

As he begins to deflect the notion of his own leadership potential, Oduro is interrupted. The young, up-and-coming players who join Oduro on the new-look roster saunter across the room to the bar top where he is seated and seek to embrace the 28-year-old Ghanaian. It’s only natural that they would turn to Oduro. His 13 goals led all Crew players during the 2013 season, topped his previous personal single-season high of 12 and more than likely weighed heavily in the decision to re-sign the player. Oduro would hardly be considered a member of the club’s “old guard,” but his new contract makes him an elder statesman of sorts.

Asked again of his role as a leader on the team, Oduro shrugs off that suggestion but does so with a telling smile. He knows the truth and certainly his teammates do as well, that Oduro will be counted on for plenty of goals but also leadership qualities, undying commitment and increased consistency in the upcoming season. As the Crew embarks on a new era in club history, Oduro is in position, literally and figuratively, at the front.

Oduro spent the offseason in Ghana, where he trained in preparation for 2014 every single day, either in proper conditioning drills or in frequent pickup games with nearby professional soccer players, such as retired Ghanaian and European club star Stephen Appiah. One day though, during a break to watch soccer, Oduro said he sat down for an MLS Cup playoff match and became disturbed by the sight of it.

Suddenly his daily pickup games weren’t enough, nor was the conditioning or other exercises. He didn’t cease preparation for 2014, of course, but wished he could be training with his Crew teammates at that moment.

“It hurts,” Oduro said of failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2013. “Just the fact that I couldn’t get up and go to practice. I train hard with that in mind, and next time someone can be at home watching me.”

The training also included spin classes—Oduro winced as he spoke of them—and muscle-building in the usual areas, such as legs and the abdominal region. His least favorite day on his personal workout calendar is leg day, he said, adding, “Lower-body is really hell because after that you can barely walk. But also it gives you that stability to run with the ball. So, as much as I hate it, it’s necessary. I still do it because it makes me better.”

One barometer for judging success in 2014 for Oduro will be topping his 2013 goal total of 13 tallies. As any good leader might suggest, though, he is hesitant to pick an arbitrary number for which to shoot. Goals, Oduro said, like wins and everything else about the team’s new approach, must begin with a successful first step.

“It’s easy for me to say any number, but I always say this: you have to start with one because it’s so hard to score goals,” he said. “I always say I’m trying to beat what I had last year, but I have to start with one.”

That kind of reasonable, commonsense approach to the game has teammates like homegrown Crew signee Chad Barson drawing favorable comparisons between Oduro and the former Crew greats who have moved on.

Barson said he is aware that every member of Columbus’ 2008 championship team has retired, moved to another club or seen their contract expire. Therefore, Barson said, the onus to deliver falls on the new guard, and they’ll be looking up to players like Oduro for guidance throughout the upcoming campaign.

“[The departed players] were great guys to have around because they knew what it took to win a championship, not just soccer-wise, but just talking with them about what it takes to be a pro every single day and get to that level,” Barson said. “Dom has been unfortunate because he’s been on several different teams, so knowing that he’s going to be around again this upcoming year is very encouraging.

“A lot of those [previous players] were great leaders … they were ‘pro’s pros’ and [Oduro] has plenty of experience, so that’s something that he brings to the table—leadership. With the success Dom’s had in his career, he’s someone we can feed off of and learn from.”

The praise Barson heaped on Oduro is more than enough to draw out the Ghanaian’s toothy smile. At times, he comes off as reluctant to assume the leadership role that is now open to him. He minimized his potential impact in that area during the Jan. 24 discussion with Fit Columbus.

“I know I have to assume a leadership role, which I think it is something that I can do if I have to,” Oduro says.

Sometimes, a player’s leadership skills aren’t best demonstrated via syntax. Oduro might never come out and openly declare himself a willing party to the elite group of Crew player-leaders, but he still demonstrates the knowledge that will be required of him in order to “fill the boots” of former Crew greats.

Of goal-scoring, Oduro admits to weaknesses in his game and said he knows he needs to improve—the mark of a knowledgeable and self-aware player.

“I think the question now is can I be consistent, and that is hard work right now,” Oduro said. “I’ve set the bar really high, and I have to live up to expectations. I had a great season, and I’ve been working really hard to keep my level high.”

Perhaps most importantly, Oduro says he is also willing to put personal goals aside for his team, the city he loves and the black-and-gold-clad fans who support him.

Spoken like a true leader if ever there was one.

“Every year, you know those fans out there are expecting a Cup, so you have to treat every game like it’s your last,” he said. “Everyone is on board with trying to make the playoffs [in 2014] and once you do that, everything else can be a new story … we have the team to be a championship team.”