Columbus Crew SC has a reasonably young roster, with players averaging 25.9 years old during the 2018 season. But like any other team, the Black & Gold relies on some veterans to lead their teammates on and off the field. Some of these players have been with the club for some time now, but, despite their professionalism and work rate, Father Time is still undefeated.
When the 2019 season starts, midfielder Federico Higuain will be 34, fullback Harrison Afful will be 32 and center back Josh Williams will be one month away from turning 31. All of these players are still performing at high level and they have, each on their own way, been key players for the Black & Gold in recent years. But their age situation leads us to another reflection: is it time to start thinking about replacing them?
Having older players in the team is not necessarily a problem, especially if they are performing at the level Pipa, Afful and Williams have been. However, having a plan B is always a smart option, especially because performance drops related to age issues could happen in the blink of an eye.
Columbus seems to be covered in the long-term at the center back position. As Williams ages, Lalas Abubakar and Alex Crognale, to a smaller extent, both can evolve as MLS starting-caliber players. The young defenders combine for 56 matches over the last two seasons and have demonstrated on multiple occasions they will be ready to step up when Williams’ game starts to decline.
At the fullback position, however, the situation is not as comfortable. Afful registered seven assists in 2018, the most in his four-year career in Columbus, and is one of the team’s most effective offensive pieces. But the scenario is not clear regarding who could potentially replace him in the long-term.
Hector Jimenez, the most frequent replacement at both fullback positions, is not a spring chicken at 30. And Connor Maloney, who is 23, has played just 155 minutes in the course of two seasons and didn’t have much of a chance to show more than his hard work yet.
The most critical spot, though, is the center attacking midfielder. Higuain is one-of-a-kind at his role, as his playoff performance showed. But considering his age and his time with the club, the team should have more options lined up to come in when he walks away.
The Crew started an experiment with 22-year-old Venezuelan Eduardo Sosa this past season, but the results were probably not what the coaching staff expected. Sosa had some good moments, especially when he scored the game-winning goal against Real Salt Lake, but also some bad ones, including the silly red card he was issued against New York City FC just 19 minute after he was subbed in.
Finding the right situation to transition from veterans to younger players is always challenging, especially when it involves important players such as Higuain, Afful and Williams. However, for the sake of keeping the team’s competitive level, clubs need to start the process of finding replacements sooner rather than later so they have all the answers when questions start being asked.
Columbus is no different and maybe 2019 is the season in which we see this transitions getting started. Pipa, Afful and Williams don’t have to be out of their starting jobs, but giving younger players some valuable minutes could also mean saving their legs for when it matters the most.