It could be argued that Columbus Crew SC’s 2016 season was derailed by injuries.
With key players Federico Higuain and Gaston Sauro out for much of the year with various ailments, the Black & Gold struggled both offensively and defensively. The team did not have the cover necessary to withstand these absences and missed the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
A goal in 2017 was to not let this happen again. Like every offseason, head coach Gregg Berhalter sought talent, but this year he was able to hit the mark more than he had previously.
“I think we saw early in preseason that we’re going to be comfortable with a number of players,” Berhalter said on Wednesday.
Preseason is one thing, but the Major League Soccer regular season is another. Crew SC is only eight games into the year, but Columbus has already played 18 players, started 16 and only had the same starting 11 in back-to-back games once, the last two weekends.
“I didn’t even realize that stat, but that’s interesting to me,” Berhalter said.
“I think it keeps people involved. I think it keeps people on their toes... I think that’s the idea is that more than 11 guys are prepared. So if we can keep 16, 17, 18, 19 guys prepared and ready to play and knowing their role then we’re going to be a better team, no question.”
Some of Berhalter’s rotation has been forced — center-back Jonathan Mensah was suspended and injured and left back Jukka Raitala was away on international duty — but much of it has come due to the depth the team has accumulated.
A large portion of that depth has been a part of a youth movement going on in Columbus.
The Black & Gold are the second-youngest team in the league with an average age of just under 24.7 years old. In each of the last two games, Crew SC has started six players 24 or younger and some of the young talent hasn’t seen much, if any time.
Berhalter is pleased with how all of the young players are coming along.
“I think they’ve been developing nicely and I think we have to be careful about how much we can expect from them,” he said. “Having said that, they’re stretching those limits daily with what the young guys have been doing. When I look at Niko (Hansen), Alex (Crognale), Cristian Martinez, Artur, Lalas (Abubakar), Connor (Maloney), all of these guys have been doing a great job.”
The Black & Gold added even more depth and youth when the team made a trade for 22-year old winger Kekuta Manneh just under a month ago. Although he is yet to play, Manneh is a part of Berhalter’s plans going forward, once he has fully acclimated to his new club.
While depth, specifically quality depth, is a certainly a positive, it also has its drawbacks. Only 11 guys can be on the field at once and only 18 make the game-day roster. Because of this, players are going to miss out each match but, according to Berhalter, this does not reflect where a player stands on the team.
“A guy’s standing doesn’t change whether he’s in the 18 or not on the week,” he explained. “There may be tactical reasons why someone’s not in the 18 for the week. For example, there were times when one of our center backs has started in the game and then the next week is not in the 18. It happens.
“There are tactical reasons why. It’s a long season and we don’t see the 18 as a guy’s absolute worth to the team, if that makes sense.”
With injuries to midfielder Artur — who will likely miss at least three weeks with a broken wrist — and Crognale — who has an injured ankle but could return this week — the depth may be tested further in this week’s matchup with New York City FC.
For Berhalter, depth is a good thing. Crew SC currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, meaning that, at least to start the year, the contributions of more players is helping the team.
“I like it,” Berhalter said. “I like the fact that guys are getting opportunities. I think it makes the team closer and it keeps more people involved. So as long as we’re able to do that and be successful, we’re going to continue to do so.”