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Niko Hansen hoping for a healthy second year with Crew SC

The winger, who missed most of the 2017 season due to injury, started the last two matches and is looking forward to play big minutes this year.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2018 Major League Soccer season started, it looked like it was still 2017 for Niko Hansen as the winger, who was sidelined for most of his rookie year due to an injury, was not used in the first two matches for Columbus Crew SC after he pulled a hamstring during preseason in Hawaii.

However, the 23-year-old player’s fortune has quickly changed as, after coming off the bench in three of the team’s next five matches, the Denmark native was part of Crew SC’s starting lineup for the last two games, against the New England Revolution and the San Jose Earthquakes.

“It’s good for my confidence,” Hansen said about the starts. “I wanted to get in and be aggressive and add to our attack. It’s getting in behind the lines and being a part of that. I’m trying to do it as much as I can and it’s good for the team. For me, it’s always about being aggressive, being in front of goal and getting the chances.”

Even if Hansen was not able to help the team with goals or assists yet this year, his contributions were noticed. The winger was involved in a good amount of the team’s goal scoring opportunities and produced five shots over the two games.

It was his dynamism and hard work on the field, though, that pleased head coach Gregg Berhalter.

“We wanted a player in that position that could be more dangerous in the attacking third,” the coach stated. “His willingness to make the runs behind the defense and to get into the penalty box is something we like. It’s no secret that it’s vital for our team’s success that the wide attacking midfielders produce goals and assists. We need that and we think he’s a guy who can spark something.”

Selected by Crew SC in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Hansen made as good of a first impression as one can hope, coming off the bench on his debut to score the game-winning goal and to record an assist in a 3-2 victory over the Portland Timbers in late March.

The winger got his first start a few weeks later against Toronto FC. But after that, his physical struggles started. Hansen noticed pain in the abdominal area, which was diagnosed as hernia. Crew SC’s staff tried to avoid surgery and the Danish player kept playing for almost two months while he was treated.

In June, though, the operation was inevitable. Hansen returned to training in September, but only saw the field for 23 minutes in two matches after that. His tumultuous rookie season made his physical condition become his main priority in his second year with Crew SC.

“First of all, being healthy,” he answered when asked what his goals for 2018 were. “Last year, I was out a little bit, but I think now it’s being part of the group and being in the rotation and ultimately being a starter. It’s getting points for the team and going to the top of the table.”

Hansen, who already logged 190 minutes in five matches in 2018 (he had 417 minutes in 15 games last year), is trying to connect as quick as possible with the other elements of Crew SC’s front line.

If Federico Higuain is a player he’s familiar with, the same cannot be said about Gyasi Zardes, who is in his first year with the club, or Pedro Santos, who joined the team last season when Hansen was sidelined. To speed up the process, this group is talking to each other. A lot.

“For me, it’s always learning,” Hansen added. “Between all our front guys, we’re constantly talking. We have different guys with different strengths. During the game or in training, I’m constantly talking to Pedro about putting an early ball in or with Gyasi about his run and my run and with Pipa about getting behind. It’s constantly about getting to know each other and learning what our strengths are.”