It's been an interesting ride for Hector Jimenez. Since joining Columbus Crew SC in 2014, the midfielder/defender has appeared in 52 games for the Black & Gold, starting 33 of them, but his number of matches playing from the beginning has diminished each of his seasons with the club.
"It's tough because during the progress of the game you've got to try and figure out if you're going to go in and what position you might come in and you've got different roles," Jimenez told Massive Report of his role coming off the bench. "It's something that I take pride in."
Gregg Berhalter, Crew SC's head coach, has shown a trust in Jimenez, a player he played alongside with the LA Galaxy, using him in several positions. This helps to make him a perfect utility player coming off the bench with his ability to fit in different spots.
Chad Barson is in a similar position. The Homegrown player has spent his entire four-year career with Columbus, but has only seen the field 43 times with 30 starts. Like Jimenez, Barson can play multiple positions - being a center back throughout college and comfortable on the left or the right of the defense - and has often been used in a reserve role during his tenure.
"You could certainly let it affect you mentally, but I think then your play starts to struggle when you let the things that you can't control start to get to you," Barson said this week. "So all you can really do is try to keep a clear as mind possible knowing that whenever you get your opportunity, whether it's few and far between or every week, that you're ready to step in and make an impact."
It's weeks like this one that players like Jimenez and Barson look forward to. With usual starting right back Harrison Afful away on international duty, there is a potential opportunity for these two players.
"Definitely," Jimenez said when asked if there's more incentive this week with Afful gone. "Harrison's a fantastic right back and when he's away, I hope to be able to step in and contribute to the team. If I do get the chance, I'll try and step in there and do the best that I can."
"Maybe just a little added motivation knowing that there's a greater chance to get game minutes." Barson agreed. "Harrison's cemented himself pretty well in that starting role and it's not like I don't come out every day and train to the best of my ability, but certainly when a guy is gone and the team is lacking in depth a little bit, you see a little bit more light at the end of the tunnel."
While the opportunity is there, only one of these players will get the start at right back on Saturday when Crew SC take on Real Salt Lake. Both players look to seize that role this week, but it will all come down to who fits best in Berhalter's eyes.
"I think they're different in terms of their skillsets," the head coach said. "Both of them have qualities that fit our team nicely. I think Chad has played on the left side as well so Chad's a left back/right back and Hector's a right back/midfielder. So when you look at those combinations, it's a little bit different."
Jimenez's experience as an outside midfielder gives him a bit of an advantage at outside back where the Black & Gold expect the players to get forward often. While Barson is more of a defensive option, he has spent the last three years working to develop his offensive game.
"I've just got to make sure that when I get that opportunity that I do the best I can to get forward, get crosses, be as involved in the attack, and just kind of be up the field as much as possible," he said. "Then when I need to get back and get in line in defense and be compact, I do that."
Whichever player gets the start on Saturday will hope to help a Columbus defense that has shown drastic improvement over the last two weeks. After conceding four goals against New York City FC, the Black & Gold allowed one goal against the league-leading Colorado Rapids followed by shutting out a prolific Toronto FC attack last weekend.
"Our approach hasn't changed at all. It's just starting to come together a little bit and it's good," Barson stated.
"So being able to shore things up defensively, both through the run of play and on set pieces. We did a great job of that last game. I think it's a good positive for us."
Both of those games have resulted in draws, so the focus this week for the whichever player gets the start, and the team as a whole, is turning one point into three.
"I think things haven't really changed defensively," Jimenez said.
"Hopefully this time around, knowing that we have two games in seven days, we can get some points and have a nice little run before the break."