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The Open Cup could provide an opportunity for Lalas Abubakar

The Crew SC rookie is looking to get his first minutes for the Black & Gold.

It’s been a rough start to a professional career for Lalas Abubakar. The rookie out of the University of Dayton has yet to make an appearance for Columbus Crew SC after being drafted fifth overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

Three times this season, Abubakar has made the 18-man game day roster for the Black & Gold, including back-to-back games within the first three weeks of the year. But since the 3-2 loss to New York City FC on April 29, Lalas has spent more time on loan with Crew SC’s affiliate club, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, than he has near the first-team lineup.

“For me, as a person, I feel like it’s hard,” Abubakar recently said of his back-and-forth and up-and-down first year. “But for me, I’ve got to do it. I don’t have any other options because at the end of the day, it’s best for me. So I have to do it no matter what.”

It’s likely not what the rookie expected after being selected so high by Columbus. Early draft picks anticipate coming in and competing for playing time like Crew SC’s other first-round selection, Niko Hansen, who has made 12 appearances for the Black & Gold, including three starts.

Abubakar has watched from the sideline as Hansen has excelled and his team is struggling to keep the ball out of the back of the net. As a center defender, this could be frustrating.

The good new is Lalas is getting some playing time, although it’s at another level. Abubakar has played in four matches for the Riverhounds in USL competition and is one of the team’s leaders in interceptions.

“I’ve learned a lot,” he said of his time in Pittsburgh. “Getting games is really important and I’m really happy I went down there and get some minutes and play against some MLS players in the USL. So it’s really good to test myself as well.

“So I think it was really important for me to go challenge myself down there and it was good.”

If the reality that he’s not quite ready for MLS play has gotten to Abubakar, he’s not showing it.

Back in Columbus this week as Crew SC prepare for Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match against USL side FC Cincinnati, Abubakar has the same smile on his face as when he was drafted and he’s performing well in practice.

“He looks sharp,” head coach Gregg Berhatler said of Abubakar. “He looks really sharp. He’s confident. I think he’s fit. Everything is trending positively for Lalas.”

For Berhalter, who played the game for 18 years and is now in his fourth season in charge of the Black & Gold, he understands the challenges for players, especially young ones.

“You see it across the board with rookies that they have great periods and then they hit dips and then physically it’s difficult for them because they’re not used to the longer season,” he said. “But overall, it’s a process with these guys and Lalas has a bright future and it’s about keeping him hungry and working hard.”

According to Abubakar, his hunger has not faded. He has embraced these challenges as part of the growing process of a young professional player.

“As a rookie you’ve got to go through challenges and I’m happy I’m going through all these challenges,” he said. “Not playing and I have to drive three hours to Pittsburgh and stay there for three weeks. I’m happy I’m going through these challenges and it’s helping me grow.”

With the Open Cup beginning on Wednesday, the tournament could provide Abubakar a chance to not only suit up for the Black & Gold, but actually get on the field. Despite fans clamoring for a first-choice lineup, these early rounds of the Open Cup have traditionally been a time to get young players minutes.

For Lalas, this is an exciting proposition and one he’s hoping he can take advantage.

“I was down in Pittsburgh this past week, and before I went down there that’s what I discussed with Gregg,” Abubakar said. “He told me he needs me to get some minutes and come back for the Open Cup. I went there and got three games in and now I’m back and getting ready for the Open Cup.

“It’s going to be awesome. I love playing in front of a large crowd so I’m looking forward to that challenge and I’m really happy. Just concentrating and help the team to get a win on Wednesday is really important.”