Columbus Crew SC has a problem.
No, it’s not the position in the standings — ninth in the Eastern Conference — or the 10-match winless streak, although those are issues too. It’s who can the Black & Gold play at left back this week when Columbus faces the New England Revolution.
When Waylon Francis went to the ground in obvious agony in the 53rd minute of Crew SC’s 3-3 draw with New York City FC last weekend, the problem only mounted.
During the offseason, Crew SC signed veteran left back Corey Ashe to provide depth at the position but the 30-year old has missed the last two matches with a knee injury.
As for Francis, a "dislocated shoulder," was all head coach Gregg Berhalter said about the injury following the match. On Monday he confirmed this, but stated Francis was scheduled for an MRI.
The Columbus Dispatch reported on Tuesday that Francis suffered a labral tear that could require surgery would rule him out for the season.
Berhalter continues to say Ashe is progressing and he has not been on the injury report.
"I’m progressing each day so we’ll see how this week goes," Ashe said on Monday.
"Hopefully we’ll have a good week, get on the field tomorrow and then hopefully be available for Saturday."
Francis is yet to practice this week, but Ashe has taken part in some aspects of training. On Thursday he walked off the field without a noticeable limp in cleats, while Francis stood on the sideline watching in street clothes.
While Berhalter has not ruled either player out of the match with the Revs, saying it will come down to the last minute, he has begun to prepare other options in case the natural options cannot go.
Hector Jimenez entered the match to replace Francis on Saturday and Chad Barson is another option according to Berhalter. The issue with these two players is they are both right foot dominant.
"It’s a little different," Jimenez said in comparison with the right side. "I think the only thing I struggle with is positioning myself when I’m defending one on one. I’m not quite used to it on the line."
"I think you just need to make sure you’re showing a good angle to prepare yourself to play the ball up the line with the left," Barson said of the side switch.
With the way Columbus plays, the outside backs push high up the field to provide the width of the attack. The Black & Gold have spent large portions of training sessions working on crosses into forward Ola Kamara, but a right-footed crosser coming from the left changes things.
"It obviously depends on the pressure that is coming to us when we’re preparing to cross the ball," Barson explained. "I think if we have time and space and we can hit it with our left, we’ll do that. I think all of us feel comfortable crossing with both our right and our left foot."
While a left-footed cross is swings in towards the on-rushing attacker, making it easier to redirect the ball with power, a right-footed player may cut it back and serve a cross that bends towards the goal.
"At the end of the day, Gregg really likes a lot of inswinging crosses," Jimenez said. "So if we can get down that end line hit those balls to Ola or maybe even Harry or Ethan on the back post, that’s where we can be dangerous."
Another advantage of a right-footed player on the left wing can be seen from winger Justin Meram. Crew SC’s No. 9 has made a habit of cutting back onto his stronger foot and curling a shot goalward from the top of the 18-yard box.
Jimenez is not unfamiliar with that concept. The defender had a pop against NYCFC that reminded him and all those in attendance of a 2014 goal against D.C. United.
"I had a flashback from 2014," Jimenez said with a laugh.
In an ideal world, Waylon Francis would demonstrate enough strength to get back in the lineup quickly and Ashe’s knee would hold up enough to get him on the field this weekend. With the way, the Black & Gold seasons’ gone, that doesn’t seem likely.
If it comes down to Jimenez or Barson, Berhalter has two players with experience playing on the left. While it’s not ideal, the situation is manageable with either player, especially with help from those around them.
"I think it’s just really important that we have communication as a back four and a couple guys in front of us," Barson said. "That we’re all on the same page, communicating and moving and shifting together."