When Columbus Crew SC’s starting lineup was released about an hour before Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, many fans likely did a double take.
After playing the same starting 11 for the first three games of the season, the Black & Gold were forced to make two changes to the lineup that defeated D.C. United 3-1 the week prior due to Wil Trapp and Zack Steffen’s call-ups to the U.S. Men’s National Team. With those two back and healthy for Columbus, it was assumed the starters would go back to the same group that got Crew SC off to a 2-0-1 start.
But that was not the case.
After playing 90 minutes in each of the first four games, Milton Valenzuela was replaced by Hector Jimenez in the Black & Gold’s starting 11.
“Hector’s a guy that’s going to be important to this group. We wanted to give him games,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said of the change following the match. “We know that it will be valuable to keep him fit during the season, we know he’s going to play a number of games and, although Milton was doing fantastic, it was important for us to get Hector on the field, that he stays fit and that he remains an important part of this group.”
There is no doubting Jimenez’s importance to the club. During his first four years in Columbus, all under Berhalter, the versatile player appeared in 91 games for Crew SC at nearly every field position. During the stretch run last year, Jimenez started the final seven games of the regular season and the first three of the playoffs at left back over other, more natural players at the position and performed well.
But starting Jimenez over Valenzuela, who started the year brightly and scored his first professional goal in the win over D.C., raised some eyebrows.
Berhalter acknowledged as much.
“Those are the toughest decisions you have to make as a coach, the timing of it,” he explained on Monday. “And we deliberated for hours in there, ‘Are we hurting (Milton’s) momentum? He had such a good game.’ But in the end, we felt given the opponent, meaning the direct matchup, given a home game, given the length of time since Hector’s last played, we thought this was the ideal time.”
There is another factor that Berhalter and his staff had to consider.
Despite his play reflecting otherwise, Valenzuela is only 19 years old. Prior to joining Crew SC, the Argentinian made just 13 total appearances for former club Newell’s Old Boys’ senior team.
Valenzuela’s body is not used to the physical demands of a full professional season. Considering the Black & Gold want him healthy throughout the year, Berhalter also took that into account.
“That’s going to be the other side of it,” he said. “A 19 year old, can he play 34 games? And our answer is no. We’re going to pick and choose our moments to rest him and this was one.”
In the end, Berhalter’s decision makes sense. Jimenez gave his usual steady performance at left back, tying for the second-highest rating on the team according to WhoScored.com with a 6.7 out of 10.
While it was Jimenez’s mistaken header that led to the Whitecaps’ first goal, it could be argued that Valenzuela — a 5.9 rating from WhoScored — was out of position in the buildup to Vancouver’s go ahead finish.
Ultimately, it was a calculated risk by the Crew SC staff to get a player whom has been and will be important, in Jimenez, some minutes while also resting a guy, in Valenzuela, who is not used to the work load.
Was it the right decision? Berhalter still believes so.
“We had to take some of the other stuff out of the equation,” he said. “I know it’s hard to and Milton’s been playing great so you don’t want to break momentum, but this was a time we felt, looking at all angles, that it was appropriate to play Hector.”