Not much happened during the last five minutes of Columbus Crew SC’s 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution last Saturday, but for one Black & Gold player, those were very special moments. Winger Niko Hansen, who had been struggling with a handful of different injuries over the past six months, came off the bench and finally made his official debut in 2019, six matches into the season.
The 24-year-old Hansen came in for Pedro Santos at the 84th-minute mark and more important than the three passes he connected or the clearance he registered was the fact that he felt confident and painless after some long-lasting physical struggles.
“It felt great,” he said after Tuesday’s training session. “Coming into that game, I had like four sprints in a row in the first two minutes and I was thinking, ‘That’s a good way to get back into the game.’ I felt my body was feeling really, really good and had no pain at all.”
Those minutes were what Hansen hopes to be the end of a series of misfortunes that sidelined him for quite some time. It all started back in 2018 when he had a serious ligament injury in his right ankle during the playoff game against D.C. United in November.
The winger, who was selected by the Crew with the 9th overall pick at the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, said he felt he had sustained a serious injury right at the moment it happened, but he not only managed to play the match until the end of overtime but also to convert one of the penalty kicks that sent the team through to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Hansen had surgery during the offseason and after 14 weeks of rehabilitation, he was ready to roll when the Crew reported for preseason back in January. That’s when an uncommon issue kept him away from the first part of the preparation.
“Some of the scar tissue basically ripped from where it originally healed up in to,” the winger explained. “In the beginning, it wasn’t a bad diagnosis, but it still kept me out for a week or so and I had to kind of get used to the ankle again a little bit and it was just painful to deal with that. I was very limited, it was pretty hard for me to change directions. It was gradually getting to the point where I could turn without any issues.”
It was just a small setback when compared to the more serious ankle injury or to the hernia surgery he had back in 2017. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last one for Hansen. As the winger gradually regained his form, he was granted his first opportunity under new head coach Caleb Porter.
Selected to start the team’s second match at the Carolina Challenge Cup against USL side Charleston Battery, Hansen had only 39 minutes on the field before he was subbed off because of a hamstring injury.
“I was feeling good at Charleston, but then I ended up getting the hamstring injury,” he reflected. “I was frustrated because I had spent almost 14 weeks working on my ankle and then I’m looking at another problem. I tried to stay positive and understood that it was a chance to look at some other areas of my game and I could use that time to focus on them. It was kind of a blessing in disguise. It’s not easy to be out at the start of the season, but I was looking and paying attention at everything from the outside.”
Six weeks later, the Danish midfielder, who scored three goals and had three assists in 23 matches in 2018, had his opportunity against New England. Now, fully recovered, he wants to keep building on his return to gain Porter’s trust and have more chances to help the team.
“It’s still a process. You come back and in the first couple of weeks, you’re not going to be 100 percent right away,” Hansen added. “I just tried to stay positive all the way and coaches see it. You grow each day and eventually, it will get to a point where they’ll have to make a hard decision regarding the game day roster, which is a good thing for them. They are looking for those guys they can trust 100 percent and I want to get to the point where they trust me 100 percent.”
Porter, who had had two strikers and just one winger on the bench for the majority of the matches of the season, now has more options to put together a strong game day roster. From Hansen, he expects the tenacity and pace the winger constantly displayed during his first two years in Columbus.
“Niko is direct, he runs behind,” Porter said. “He’s a good 1 v. 1 player, he’s one of the quickest guys in our team, he’s honest and he works hard. He’s got a lot of good things to offer to this team. When you look at the profile of our wingers and what we want, at least one of them has to run behind. Robinho has been bringing that and it has helped to open the game for us. Niko can bring that as well and it’s nice to have two wing options.”
If that’s all Porter expects from Hansen, then the winger has a good chance to quickly step up to those expectations. After all, he’s diagnosed that himself already.
“During this time I was off, I was looking at what my strengths are and how I can contribute to the team,” Hansen commented. “I won’t try to be something that I’m not. I’m physical, I’m quick, I want to get behind the lines and I want to be direct and try to score goals and get crosses. When it’s my chance, that’s what I’m going to do and I know that’s what they see and when they put me in, that’s what’s going to happen. I want to come in and make a difference.”