Caleb Porter has already stated a few times how hard it has been to make lineup decisions for Columbus Crew SC in 2019 but the task on his hands is expected to reach another level this week as the team prepares to play on the road against the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer’s fourth week.
Due to international call-ups and injuries, the head coach won’t have as many as five players available for selection, meaning he will have to reorganize the entirety of the team’s structure to face the Eastern Conference opponents in Pennsylvania.
And he’s somewhat excited about it.
“I’ve obviously been in this league and I know you’re going to lose guys to international duty, you’re going to have to rotate,” the coach said after Saturday’s victory against FC Dallas. “I never lose sight of that, I need everyone. I say that all the time and I’m not shallow in saying that, I mean it. And I tell the guys daily. It’s going to be great, some of these guys deserve to play and I’m excited to give them the opportunity to play and invest in this season inside the lines.”
So, let’s take a look at how each area of the team could be impacted by the absences this week:
Zack Steffen was initially called up to the U.S. National Team and subsequently replaced by Jesse Gonzalez due to a minor right knee injury. Either way, he won’t be available for selection against the Union, meaning one of Joe Bendik or Jon Kempin will get the starting job in Philly.
Based on the first three matches of the season, Bendik, who was Steffen’s backup in each contest, should get the opportunity, but don’t count Kempin out just yet. It will be one of the few opportunities for whoever is picked by Porter to get a head start in making an argument to replace Steffen after he leaves for English giants Manchester City in the summer.
The Crew’s backline, which has conceded just one goal in three matches so far, will be almost intact as Ghanaians Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah and Argentinean Gaston Sauro will all be available. Left back Waylon Francis, however, won’t be with them, as he’ll join the Costa Rican National Team. Porter already anticipated Hector Jimenez will play against the Union and, considering he’s the only other left back on the roster, he’ll take the spot.
Porter could also, however, opt for a three-man backline, a formation he was repeatedly hinted he would use at some point in the season and a road game in which he will be forced to change his lineup could be a good option to do it. If that’s the case, one of Josh Williams or Lalas Abubakar should step in for one of the midfielders.
The Black & Gold will be without their captain, Wil Trapp, who will be with the Stars & Stripes, and winger Justin Meram, who will join the Iraqi National Team. Veteran Ricardo Clark is the most likely to replace Trapp while Brazilian newcomer Robinho, who already started over Meram last weekend, should retain his starting spot.
If Porter indeed switches to a formation with three in the back, though, it’s likely that Clark and Robinho would be competing for just one spot to join Artur, Federico Higuain and Pedro Santos in the center of the field.
The other question that emerged on Tuesday is the status of central midfielder Artur. The Brazilian played through pain in his leg after suffering a tackle -- what arguably could have been a red card challenge -- against Dallas. Artur was held out of training on Tuesday but Porter hoped he would be back Wednesday, calling him day to day.
The Crew’s 2018 top goal scorer Gyasi Zardes will try to continue his good form under the team’s former head coach Gregg Berhalter in a couple of friendlies with the American National Team and won’t make the trip to Philadelphia.
Porter has two options to replace him in veteran Patrick Mullins and rookie JJ Williams. Mullins started preseason ahead thanks to his experience in the league, but Williams arguably covered a lot of ground and was even mentioned by the head coach as a player he would have liked to put in the field against the New York Red Bulls in the season opener. It seems to be a coin flip between the two and this week’s training will go a long way to determine which forward starts.
With at least four players who were on the bench in the last games likely jumping into starting roles this weekend, some players who are yet to make it to the game day roster in 2019 should have an opportunity to dress for the first time in the season.
Kempin is guaranteed to make the 18 while others like fullback Connor Maloney and midfielders Luis Argudo, Eduardo Sosa, Niko Hansen (if healthy) and Edward Opoku could all have their first chances to play this year.
If you were Porter, which players would you bring into the starting lineup? Who would make it to the bench? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments box below!