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Excess of options is a ‘good problem’ for Columbus Crew SC

With most of his roster fit and in form, Gregg Berhalter has a hard time to pick the starting lineup.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

What will be Columbus Crew SC’s starting lineup this weekend? If this question had a predictable answer in the past, that’s not the case anymore.

With much of his roster healthy and multiple players displaying good performances on the field, head coach Gregg Berhalter confesses he’s having a hard time when picking the starting 11 every weekend.

“I told the guys that I haven’t seen this much competition for spots since I’ve been here,” he said. “It’s good, but it’s also difficult for the coaching staff. But you’d like to have this type of difficulties.”

Zack Steffen in the goalkeeper position and Ola Kamara at forward are probably the only undisputed starters of the team right now. In the other nine spots, competition is high for the right to be on the field.

The backline is a good example of the depth “excess” Crew SC is facing in 2017.

Since the start of the season, Berhalter used 19 different combinations in that position group. Competition starts at the right back position where Harrison Afful, considered by many one of the best fullbacks in the league, is challenged by Hector Jimenez, who once again is proving his worth to the team.

But the versatile Jimenez is also an option at the left back spot, where he started last weekend against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Jukka Raitala, one of the most regular players in the team, and Waylon Francis, who was in route to regain his best form until an injury slowed him down, are the primary choices for the position, though.

In central defense, Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams solidified their spots over the last couple of months, but rookie Lalas Abubakar did a good job every time he was called upon. And don’t take Alex Crognale for granted. The big, first-year, Homegrown player had ups and downs but also proved to be a viable option in the center back role.

Central midfield is probably the best example on how momentum can play a factor in the starting lineup. The Black & Gold played most of the season with Artur playing alongside Will Trapp, but a recent injury sidelined the Brazilian, who was playing well, and that was the chance Mohammed Abu needed to bounce back from his struggles earlier in the season.

“What you want is that when a player gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it,” Berhalter said. “And that’s the case with Mohammed. He’s done an excellent job when he’s been on the field and it forced Artur to have to wait a little. But they are both excellent players and they can both help the team. So now between Will, Artur and Mohammed, guys will fight to be on the field”.

In the attacking third, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and Pedro Santos combine to be one of the best offensive trios of the league. But what to do with Kekuta Manneh, who is capable of playing any of the three spots and is coming from a match where he recorded a goal and an assist against his former club? And there are also youngster Cristian Martinez and first-round draft pick Niko Hansen, who can contribute in a smaller scale.

With the word, Berhalter.

“It’s a lot worse when you are staring at seven names that you are comfortable playing and you still have to pick another four,” the coach commented. “I’d much rather stare at 15, 16 names and have to pick 11 than the other way around.”

So be it…