During the offseason, Columbus Crew SC's staff wanted to add depth. Not only to create a fresh team come the season's end, something that hurt the club in the playoffs a year ago, but to prepare for weeks like this one.
Crew SC take on the New York Red Bulls on Saturday night and will be without two starters on the left side, as Justin Meram (Iraq) and Waylon Francis (Costa Rica) were called into their respective national team camps and will miss the match.
A year ago, this would have caused more issues, but this season, Black and Gold head coach Gregg Berhalter believes the depth is there in order for the team to not miss a beat.
"I think overall it's a stronger squad this year and that's good," he said on Monday.
"That's what we're looking for. Guys to come in and perform."
Columbus' forwards struggled a year ago scoring goals, so signing a goal scorer was the major priority, but adding to the depth was a close second. Not only would this allow for more rotation, but provide cover when players miss time
Francis was a member of the Costa Rican team that participated in the 2014 World Cup last summer and the staff knew he was in the Ticos' future plans. After a breakout performance a year ago, Meram's name was being heavily linked to the Iraqi National Team. Central midfielder Wil Trapp earned his first call-up with the U.S. squad this summer. Winger Ethan Finlay, who also impressed a year ago, has been mentioned as a possibility for both Canada and the U.S.
As the team improves and the players do better, more names could be added to this list as well, meaning cover was needed.
"Absolutely, that was part of building this roster," Berhalter said when asked about this topic. "We knew that we were going to be missing guys and it's when that guys go away, having quality guys to step in. Then, them making the case to be starters. We envision this happening and thankfully we feel comfortable with the guys we have here."
In each of the two games played this year, Crew SC has needed one of their new players to step in for a missing player. Meram missed the season opener at the Houston Dynamo due to a carry-over suspension from last year's playoffs. Tony Tchani missed the second match of the year after the league disciplined him for a violent tackle in that match.
Kristinn Steindorsson and Mohammed Saeid stepped in for those two and both had good outings in their first starts.
"It's fine to talk about [quality depth], but I think the guys needs to show that with their performances, the guys that get chances," Berhalter explained. "Mohammed certainly showed that when he came in. Kristinn, the first game, I thought did well."
When the Black and Gold take the field against the Red Bulls, Steindorsson will likely get his second start in three games with Meram away. Francis has played all 180 minutes for Columbus at left back, but it is suspected defender Chris Klute, who was acquired in a draft day trade with the Colorado Rapids, will replace him, although Berhalter listed third-year pro Chad Barson as an option as well.
With new players entering the lineup, Berhalter has made it clear that he does not expect them to exactly replicate the players they are replacing, but each guy needs to fit into the system.
"The idea was to bring in [guys] who [have] similar skillsets," he said. "[They're] not exactly the same, but [they'll] interpret the position very similar."
In the first game, Steindorsson did not provide the one v. one ability and the long range shooting fans have come to expect from Meram, but he was a big part of the team's 59.4 percent possession advantage and an 80 percent passing accuracy. The Icelandic international also had the best chance of the game against the Dynamo, but was unable to open his account thanks to a great save from Tyler Deric.
Klute saw time at left back in the preseason to mixed results. With the ability to play on either side of the defense, Klute was unable to earn the starting spot at right back over Hernan Grana, who missed much of the preseason due to the birth of his child. The defender looked dangerous going forward, but was not as sound as Francis defensively and careless in his tackles at times.
Berhalter is confident that his reserves can step up and fill the void left by those who are away and two of those guys will get the chance this weekend.
Will they live up to the challenge? We'll all find out Saturday night.