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Healthy again, Niko Hansen looks to contribute for Columbus Crew SC

The rookie wants to finish his season on a positive note.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

They call it the rookie wall and it happens to many first-year professionals.

Players are used to a smaller, less intense college schedule and then make the jump to the next level and everything is ramped up a notch.

That is what happened to Columbus Crew SC’s ninth-overall pick Niko Hansen.

“I’ve been going since my college season started in July actually,” the winger said. “I came in and I had to stay fit through the Combine, through January and then straight into preseason.”

Hansen’s rookie season started brightly, coming off the bench in the fourth game of the year against the Portland Timbers and scoring the game-winning goal on the first shot of his professional career.

The winger worked his way into the starting lineup on the right side of the Crew SC attack, registering an assist in a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC. But by May, Hansen’s body was beginning to feel the effects of nearly a year of constant playing.

Hansen began to notice pain in his abdomen area, which was diagnosed as hernia.

“Maybe a little bit of wear and tear, but maybe something that I did also,” Hansen said of where the issue came from. “It’s common. You see a lot of hernias out there.”

Originally, the Black & Gold staff tried to avoid surgery and work with Hansen to manage the issue. But his form suffered and, in late June, it was deemed that going under the knife was the best option in order to have the rookie back and at his peak.

When Hansen returned to the training field and began working on his fitness, he was quickly back on the sidelines due to a hip flexor injury.

“I think the worst part of that was having to think about doing all the fitness again,” Hansen said with a chuckle. “It’s frustrating a little bit, but I think with injuries you just have to take it as it goes. Your body gets injured every now and then and you have to take care of it.”

Hansen has been back in full training for a couple of weeks now, but is yet to return to Crew SC’s game day 18-man roster. Since his surgery, Kekuta Manneh has found his form with Columbus and head coach Gregg Berhalter added Designated Player Pedro Santos, both of which play Hansen’s winger position.

This means that, partially due to the surgery, Hansen is back on the outside looking in when it comes to playing time.

“That was the route we took and that was the sacrifice I had to make, being in the team and now I’m not,” the rookie said. “But that’s what I needed to get done if I wanted to look later down the line.”

Given the recent performances of Crew SC’s attacking players, Hansen’s playing time may be limited down the stretch. But as a rookie coming in, his quest for minutes seemed like a long shot yet he managed to get on the field with the right attitude.

“I think take advantage of opportunities like today,” Berhalter said of Hansen. “And then training and if he gets in a game. That’s all players can do and that’s exactly how he forced his way in last time.

“I know he’s ready to do it. I know he’s working hard and he wants to put himself in position to get back on the field.”

Hansen got an opportunity for playing time of sorts on Wednesday when the Black & Gold scrimmaged USL side Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

Although it wasn’t MLS action, it was a step for Hansen, who says he’s close to 100 percent, to finish out his rookie year strong.

“I haven’t played since June now. It was good for me to get back out there,” he said. “Kind of see some things, both functionally through what we want to do strategically and tactically, but also kind of individually what I can assess a little bit.

It’s nice to get a game in again. It’s been a while since I’ve had one so it was nice to get out there and I’ll take it from there.”