Columbus Crew SC has a good amount of resources to hit the market and get a replacement for Justin Meram, but the Black & Gold might not have to look so far to get some production from the left wing spot as Mike Grella is in the final stages of his rehabilitation process and can’t wait to see the field again.
Acquired in December in a trade with the Colorado Rapids, who selected him in the Re-Entry Draft, Grella could be an interesting piece to ease the burden generated by Meram’s absence. At his best, he was considered one of the most skilled wingers in Major League Soccer, where he played in 79 matches (66 starts), registering 16 goals and 13 assists, all with the New York Red Bulls.
Grella said that one of the factors that attracted him to Columbus was the team’s playing style, one that helped to develop players like Meram himself and Ethan Finlay. He’s looking forward to be the next one to benefit from head coach Gregg Berhalter’s system.
“There were a lot of reasons why I wanted to come here and one of the main reasons is the way the team plays,” Grella said following the team’s first day of preseason. “I always envied the way they played and the way they kept the ball. In the first meeting I had with Gregg, we sat down and the first thing on the board was ‘we value the ball.’ Those were the best words I’ve ever heard. To be at a club where they want to play when they earn the right, is really exciting for me.”
It’s fair to say that the admiration is mutual. Crew SC’s coaching staff also saw a number of positives when deciding to bring Grella in. To Berhalter, the former Red Bulls player has the technical skills and the soccer IQ needed to be a good fit in the team’s system.
“We think he’s a great player,” Berhalter noted. “He’s always given us a ton of problems when we played against him. I’ve been impressed with how smart of a soccer player he is. I think he’ll fit into our game model really nicely. I think he’s got a good future here.”
Grella’s contributions to the Black & Gold can go well beyond the field, though. One of the oldest players of the roster and one of the few with experience in Europe, he is expected to take a leadership role on the team.
The winger is willing to do that, but in his own way. To Grella, more important than being a vocal leader or a voice heard in the locker room is becoming a reference on how to be a professional.
“That was a question Gregg asked me when he was thinking about getting me over here,” he said about his leadership profile. “And I answered by saying that I’m not a guy that’s like a ‘haha’ guy in the locker room by any means and I think that I lead more by example. In terms of just bringing a good presence of how to train, how to act, how to be professional and how to fight for what you want. I just think I’m an older guy who generally does the right things.”
However, before figuring out how he would fit in Crew’s SC lineup, Grella has to complete his rehabilitation process following an injury on his left knee that sidelined him for most of the 2017 season, limiting his playing time to only eight matches.
Going through the excruciating process of recovering from a major injury for the first time in his career, the 31-year-old winger hopes he will get mentally stronger when he’s cleared to play and that the struggles he’s faced over the last several months will make him a better player for years to come.
“It’s been like hell on earth,” Grella admitted. “I’d never had an injury in my entire career and with the injury I know mentally is a huge aspect of it. I like to think that mentally I’m pretty solid. It’s been tough. You go through ups and downs, you need to shut and try to stay level.
“You’ve got to commit to the process, be confident, believe in yourself and just keep heading in the right direction. Mentally, in terms of when I do get back to fit, I don’t think I wanted to be in a better position. I think it will be the better version of me that I’ve seen playing professionally.”
Important steps towards his return to the fields will be made during preseason as Grella is expected to keep progressing on his form as weeks go by. He started preseason with limited training but should be fit when the season starts.
The veteran is excited with his progress so far and expects to make the most of the team camps in Arizona, Hawaii and Charleston to be in the best possible shape when MLS season kicks off in March.
“Preseason is always a really important time whether you are injured or not to sort of get away and focus solely on your body,” he commented. “For me, the next month is going to be crucially important. Working with this medical staff has been a blessing because I feel I’m progressing and things are moving in the right direction.”
When in good shape, Grella can be an interesting option for Berhalter to tinker with. The veteran can provide much-needed help from the wing and become a valuable asset for the Black & Gold.