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Porter looking for final lineup answers in Carolina Challenge Cup

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As the Crew’s MLS season opener approaches, the coach still has some doubts about his ideal lineup.

Sam Fahmi/Massive Report

Columbus Crew SC is set to enter the final stage of its preparation for the upcoming 2019 Major League Soccer season as the team is currently in Charleston, South Carolina, to take part in the Carolina Challenge Cup. Even though the Black & Gold were able to keep almost the entirety of their roster from last season intact, preseason is often when starting spots are won and lost and with a new head coach in town, competition sets the tone of the team’s preparation so far.

According to first-year head coach Caleb Porter, the high level of competitiveness displayed over the first weeks of training has left him with some decisions to make regarding the starting lineup for the season opener against the New York Red Bulls on March 2 at MAPFRE Stadium.

“We’ve got to start putting the 11 together a little bit,” the coach admitted. “We definitely have, in two or three spots, some tough decisions to make. There will be more of a set group as we go on, but I want to create some competition right now and give guys an opportunity to put their best foot forward.”

In South Carolina, the Crew is going to test itself against Major League Soccer opponents Chicago Fire (on Saturday, Feb. 16), USL side Charleston Battery (Wednesday, Feb. 20) and Ohio rivals and MLS debutants FC Cincinnati (Saturday, Feb. 23). Porter has a plan to give most of his squad some playing time during the three games in a week’s time and get the answers he’s looking for.

“I’ll have to pick a starting lineup on Saturday since we’re playing in a tournament, so that will definitely feel more real than any other game,” he added. “We’ll play another group on Wednesday and then probably that last group that we play in that last game, it will be close to what we do. Unfortunately, you cannot create too much mystery.”

Even though Porter has anticipated he will tinker with different formations over the course of the season, it is most likely that he starts the season in the 4-2-3-1. Under that system, it’s fair to assume that goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defenders Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah, midfielders Wil Trapp, Artur and Federico Higuain and striker Gyasi Zardes all have their spots secured.

That leaves some questions marks regarding the second center back, the left back and both winger positions. Here are the options for each of these spots:

Center back

Porter has five central defenders available besides Jonathan: Argentinean Gaston Sauro, Ghanaian Lalas Abubakar, veteran Josh Williams and Homegrown players Alex Crognale and Aboubacar Keita. The last two are not expected to contend for a starting spot right now, so, in theory, the contest is among the other three.

Williams was Jonathan’s partner for the final part of last season when he started 17 matches. He’s also one of the most active voices in the team’s locker room, but his chances could be hurt by plantar fasciitis that has sidelined him in some training sessions and all of the preseason matches so far.

Abubakar started 20 games in 2018 and seemed to have locked up a starting spot, but he played in just 81 minutes in the last eight matches of the season, only three of them during the playoffs. A new season and a new coach, though, could mean more opportunities for him.

Sauro returned after a knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and showed starting-caliber performances in each of the nine games he played at. The Argentinean has started alongside Jonathan in two of three preseason friendlies so far.

Left back

The Crew started 2019 with an undisputed starter at the left back position in Milton Valenzuela, but the Young Designated Player’s severe knee injury opened competition for the spot with Waylon Francis and Hector Jimenez as the alternatives.

Francis was re-acquired shortly after Valenzuela’s injury and is more of a like-for-like replacement for the Argentinean. Jimenez, however, has been one of the most valuable players on the roster, filling up multiple positions when requested, while also being one of the leaders of the team.

Porter hinted that he tends to prefer to have a left-footed player at the left back spot to gain width, but he also noted that the position wouldn’t be given to Francis and that he would need to perform better than Jimenez to secure his place in the starting 11.

Wingers

This is probably the position where Porter will have the most struggles to make his decision. Pedro Santos and Justin Meram were typically the starters when available in 2018, but the coach wasn’t shy to note their production was not good enough. The options here would be third-year winger Niko Hansen and Brazilian newcomer Robinho. Edward Opoku is also available in the winger role but appears to be behind those four on the depth chart.

With Santos and Meram, Porter has two experienced players, who tend to drift inside and have also shown they are able to help on defense. Hansen, who scored three goals in 23 matches last year, and Robinho are more explosive players, who can spread the opponent.

Any combination of the four is possible, but Porter has mentioned that his preference would be having a winger that stays wide and another who can cut inside and open space for a fullback.


Who do you think Porter will pick for each of these spots? Let us know in the comments section below.