The most attentive Columbus Crew SC fans noticed an unusual presence on the team’s bench in last Saturday’s match against the Chicago Fire. For the first time this season, 22-year-old right back Connor Maloney was part of the Black & Gold’s game day roster in Bridgeview.
What might sound as a minor accomplishment for many had a special meaning for the 2017 third-round draft pick, who saw the field for only 127 minutes during his rookie season with Crew SC.
“As a rookie, it’s hard, you have your ups and downs, it’s a long season and you just wait for your opportunity,” the defender said about his first season as an MLS player. “It was tough, but a big learning curve for me. In the second year, I’m more comfortable and more confident on the ball. There were ups and downs, but I gained confidence. I overcame the adversities and now there’s a lot to come in the second year.”
As If making the transition from college level to MLS was not challenging enough, Maloney also had to face another huge task in 2017. A prolific forward in college, having scored 26 goals in 73 matches over the course of four years at Penn State, the three-time First Team All-Big Ten Conference player embraced a new role in professional soccer as a right fullback.
It was a year of hard work for Maloney, who struggled with his positioning at first, but now feels well settled in his new role.
“I was definitely open to the idea, but it was a tough transition, the whole positioning and being up and down the field, a lot of talking in and knowing where to go,” Maloney commented about the transition.
“The coaching staff helped me through each and every practice and the positioning was the toughest part. I think I came in pretty smoothly and I came to the second year with a lot of confidence. Obviously there will be a couple of hiccups here and there, but for the most part, it has been pretty good.”
Despite the change of position, the offensive DNA is still a huge part of Maloney’s game. As a right back, the second-year player is trying to conserve his attacking nature and become a valuable asset for the teams he plays for in the offensive field.
With that in mind, Maloney seems to be in a privileged position by having Harrison Afful as a teammate. And the young defender tries to make the most of it, learning as much as he can from the Ghanaian international, considered by many one of the most talented fullbacks in MLS.
“I watch him during games all time, every single step of the way,” Maloney admitted. “He’s one of the best right backs in the league and one of the best guys in the league as a person. Coming out here every day and learning from him, I couldn’t have really asked for something better than that. Harry has been a very, very good mentor to me.”
However, at the same time Afful mentors Maloney and contributes to his development, he’s also directly responsible for his limited playing time. A stud on Crew SC’s playing system, the 31-year-old fullback rarely miss games through suspension or injury, meaning that little or no time at all will be available for his backup.
In 2017, for example, Afful was on the field in 29 matches. Maloney, on the other hand, had one start, against Real Salt Lake, when he recorded his only assist with Crew SC, and a match coming off the bench against the Houston Dynamo. He was also loaned to the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds to get some playing time.
“The unfortunate thing is that he’s playing behind a very strong player in Harrison Afful and we haven’t found the opportunity to integrate him yet,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said about Maloney’s progress.
“His attitude and his mindset are fantastic. He’s a guy that, if you have 25 Connor Maloneys on your team, you know exactly what you are getting on your group. Your group will be hard working, it will be fighting every day and giving 100 percent all the time. He’s got a lot of those qualities.”
The hard work mentioned by Berhalter, though, is something Maloney relies on to get a spot on the field at some point. If dethroning Afful at the right-back spot is unrealistic for a player entering only his second season in that role, why not try playing somewhere else?
A forward in college, Maloney obviously had the ability to play as a winger. In training scrimmages, he can often be seen playing as a left back as well. Does all this versatility sound familiar? Yes, that’s what you see in Hector Jimenez, another player from Crew SC’s roster who Maloney looks up to on a daily basis.
“I have that work rate that most people don’t have and that really sets me apart to play different positions,” he added. “I try to be a versatile guy. I want to play on the field, so wherever they need me, I’ll go. Hopefully I can be as versatile as possible, like Hector. It’s not common, but he’s been doing it very well for years.”
Maloney will be looking for an opportunity in 2018 and with Berhalter showing his willingness to send several young players on to the field at the same time, it might come sooner than later during the season.
However, if that’s not the case, it’s no problem. Maloney will still find a way to contribute, as he’s been doing since 2017.
“Hopefully I get a chance at some point and when my name is called I’ll be ready,” he remarked. “I’m 100 percent ready, I’m a 100 percent confident right now and whenever I’m needed, I’ll perform as best as I can and as hard as I can.”
“But getting better behind Harry and Hector each day is the main goal for me. There’s more to learn each and every day. I want to get better each day and help the team as much as I can, either in practices, games, in the locker room, whatever it is. I’ll come here every day and compete. I had to overcome some adversities, and it really shows how big of a heart you have and how much of a team player you are.”