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2018 Columbus Crew SC season preview: Wingers

Injury ridden and Meram-less, how will Crew SC start the season on the wings?

Columbus Crew SC: Cristian Martinez (18) and Pedro Santos (32)
Cristian Martinez (18) and Pedro Santos (32). Likely starters for Matchday 1?
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Major League Soccer season is less than a week away. To help get you ready for Columbus Crew SC’s year, Massive report began its 2018 preview by assessing offseason transfers, looking at the goalkeeper position, reviewed the fullbacks, and outlined the heavy depth at center back. Today we take a look at the most uncertain positions to start the season: wingers.

Pedro Santos

The marquee signing of last season failed to get on the score sheet but I saw him as quite a revolution to the team. Prior to his arrival in August of 2017, creativity at times seemed very stagnant while Federico Higuain was out injured, and in fact, creativity against some of the top defensive teams was equally as poor at times. Santos provided that much-needed supplemental creative role that complements Higuain when on the field and bridges the gap while he is off of the field.

Primarily a right winger, we have seen the Portuguese playmaker line up as a left winger in several of the preseason matches in recent weeks, likely due to injuries that have made this position thin. To start the season he may see a few matches as left winger, but I would expect him to be starting on the right side with a healthy team.

Mike Grella

Acquired from the New York Red Bulls via a Colorado Rapids MLS Re-Entry Draft selection, the American was regarded as one of the top wingers in MLS just two seasons ago. After suffering a bad knee injury last season and featuring in only eight matches, starting a mere three, he is looking to revitalize his career this season but there is a lot of uncertainty as to how soon he will be ready to start for Crew SC, having not featured in any of the team’s five preseason friendlies.

At the moment, Grella is the ideal front man for left wing wing position, but it will be interesting to see what head coach Gregg Berhalter does in the meantime. Until he is back and ready for at least 75 minutes, I would expect Santos to be the man on the left flank. Grella is adept in all aspects of play: possession, out of possession, on set pieces and in transition, so he has the potential to change the shape of the team when he is ready.

Niko Hansen

Until Grella regains match fitness there are two men eager for the job, and the man leading the charge is second-year professional, Hansen. Having started four matches for the Black and Gold last year and featuring in 11 more, he has the most experience of the pair fighting for the starting winger role.

Unfortunately for the Danish draftee, he had a groin operation at the tail end of last season and has picked up a knock in preparations for 2018. Unable to play the last few preseason matches, he is said to be very close to regaining his health. But with the running required of a Berhalter winger, we may see him as a substitute until he can secure full match fitness and sharpness.

On a personal note, I am excited to see what he can provide to the team because I see a lot of potential in Hansen and he is quite the entertaining player to watch when healthy.

Cristian Martinez

Pinned as the likely starter opposite to Santos on opening day against the 2017 MLS Cup Champion Toronto FC, based on preseason lineups, the young Panamanian is presumably the fourth winger on the depth chart and will seek to use this opportunity to prove to the coaching staff that he is deserving of more playing time.

Consistency and groundedness will be the key improvements that the staff will be looking for in the early matches of the season. We got a taste of what he is capable of with his cheeky chip against Atlanta United last week, but also an example of his youthful error-prone performances a week later in his uninspiring minutes against the Charleston Battery. It’s time for Martinez to secure a spot on the weekly team sheet.

One last note…

Let’s not forget about the utilitarian Hector Jimenez as he has to be mentioned in this section, especially with the injuries to Grella and Hansen. We will likely see Jimenez on the bench as a substitute for either full back position but he is perfectly capable of providing a defensive-oriented option on the wing if Berhalter sees necessary. I would fully expect to see him playing a few minutes on the wing this season.