Columbus Crew SC rebuilt part of its roster for the 2017 Major League Soccer season, adding as many as 11 players to its squad, including a Designated Player in Jonathan Mensah and five new faces from overseas. However, the Black & Gold are getting valuable help from names many wouldn’t have expected.
Rookies Alex Crognale and Niko Hansen, 21-year-old midfielder Artur and 22-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was signed last year but didn’t see any MLS action before March, are all having key roles on the Eastern Conference leaders.
“Without those guys contributing, our team wouldn’t be as good,” Crew SC’s head coach Gregg Berhalter said after last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Toronto FC. “There’s no question the way that Zack has played, Alex has played, Niko got his number called today and stepped up and played really well. So these guys have made the difference.”
Crognale has been considered by many the most impressive of the young players so far. The 22-year-old Homegrown Player stepped up when Mensah was out, either suspended or injured, and dominated the team’s defense as the Black & Gold conceded only two of its eight goals with him on the field. Last match, the towering 6-foot-5 center back also contributed offensively, recording the assist to Justin Meram’s game-winning goal.
The match against Toronto was also memorable for Hansen. The ninth pick of the 2017 SuperDraft made his first start with Crew SC and amassed an assist for Ola Kamara’s goal. Three weeks earlier, the Denmark native scored the game-winner against the Portland Timbers.
“It’s incredible,” Meram said of the two rookies. “They’re both (Crognale and Hansen) miles ahead of where I was as a rookie. It’s definitely very impressive and if they keep this up, they’re going to have really successful careers and I think we’re all proud of them with the way they’re (playing). Niko getting his first start, first assist and he was very dangerous today. I think both have just been fantastic even in training.”
Steffen and Artur have also been an integral part of the team’s success as the goalkeeper has made some important saves and recorded two clean sheets and the Brazilian has earned himself a starting spot and recorded one assist in the 2-0 win over Orlando City.
And, in a change from what has become the norm for Crew SC, there are more young players in line to step up and help the team during its MLS campaign. Fullback Connor Maloney played 45 minutes against the Houston Dynamo earlier this season and goalkeeper Logan Ketterer and center-back Lalas Abubakar have each made the game-day 18-man roster.
Alongside Hansen and Crognale, they are part of what can be considered the best group of rookies in the Berhalter era.
“I think this is the most quality we’ve ever stepped into a fresh season with rookies,” commented captain Wil Trapp. “I think it’s the best rookie class we’ve had from a quality standpoint. These guys are responding extremely well in tough situations and that testing of your mettle is really what’s showing through. It grows and grows and grows and they get more confidence and that’s exactly what we want to see. I think it’s a credit to them and their work ethic, but also us as teammates just bringing everyone together and saying, ‘We’re all a part of this. We need every single guy in this locker room.’”
Trapp himself is a great example for the Crew youngsters of a player who signed a Homegrown deal with the club in 2013 and transitioned from a successful rookie campaign (16 starts, one assist) to become the team’s captain and record 100 matches for the Black & Gold at the age of 24.
Having effective production from the rookies in a league with salary restrictions as MLS is a big plus, as the Seattle Sounders showed last year with Jordan Morris and Orlando City did two years ago with Cyle Larin. If Crew’s young aces continue developing in a fast pace, the future could look really bright for the Black & Gold.