From an outsider’s perspective, it’s been a relatively easy start for Caleb Porter in his first year in charge of Columbus Crew SC. The head coach has gotten the club off to a 3-1-1 run to the 2019 Major League Soccer season, which sees the Black & Gold tied for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. It’s early in the year, but those in Columbus are happy with how the team has kicked off its 24th season.
Through the first five games, Porter also hasn’t had to make too many difficult decisions when it comes to selecting his team. He used the same starting lineup for the first two weeks of the year, before making what he called a tactical change — sitting winger Justin Meram in favor of Robinho — for the 1-0 win over FC Dallas. Porter did have to adjust for the Week 4 trip to the Philadelphia Union due to missing four players to international duty and another to injury.
On Saturday when the New England Revolution come to MAPRE Stadium, Porter has a couple of non-forced decisions to make. The first has to do with Meram and Robinho.
After beginning the season as a starting winger, Meram has not played from the opening whistle since the first matchup against the Revolution. He came off the bench for 12 minutes against Dallas — again, Porter said that was a tactical decision — before missing the Philadelphia game due to international duty with Iraq. Meram had only just arrived back from a long return flight to the United States two days before last week’s win over Atlanta United and again did not start, playing nine minutes as a substitute.
While with Iraq, Meram had a goal and an assist in two games and was named the player of the tournament. Robinho meanwhile did not play well against the Union, but had easily his best game in black and gold last week, registering his first MLS assist and almost scoring his first goal with the Crew.
On Saturday, Porter will have to decide between the two wingers.
“I think every position is up for grabs always, but certainly guys that have been in there and show that they have the form and they have the ability to help us win games,” the head coach said on Tuesday. ‘And when our cohesiveness is good as a team with the 11 then you have to take that past evidence and you have to be mindful of that. I’m a big continuity guy. I believe in chemistry, I believe that’s a key to winning games and our chemistry’s been really good with Robinho in there. But at the same time, I think I’m going to have some very tough decisions coming up
“Justin’s coming back from international duty with a lot of confidence. So I’m looking forward to seeing him this week and I think it’s still going to be a tough decision. I wouldn’t say anything’s set at this point. But, when you look at our chemistry with the 11 the last two games that we played, we are definitely progressing as a team and we’re showing the caliber and quality of football that we can play.”
Another spot where Porter will have to make a call on who plays is at center back. Jonathan Mensah is cemented into his role, but the spot alongside him is where there’s a question mark.
The Black & Gold started the season with Gaston Sauro playing next to the Ghanian, and it was effective. Sauro scored in the opening game of the year and had the game-winning goal against Dallas, as well as helping Columbus to two of the team’s shutouts this season. But last week, with Sauro out sick, Josh Williams stepped in and helped the Crew record another clean sheet against the defending MLS Cup champions, Atlanta United. Despite a couple of early nervy moments, Williams played well in the contest.
Given that both players have a career track record of performing well and have done so this season, Porter again has a tough choice to make between the center backs.
“That’s the other spot that will be a tough decision to make,” the head coach said. “So we have evidence with Gaston of a team that was playing and was defending well. Obviously we had the Philly game which wasn’t as good. Josh stepped in and did a really good job and he was chomping at the bit and he was right on the edge of telling me he was ready to go in and do a good job. So I think it was no coincidence that he was able to step in and perform really well. He’s been there, done that. He’s been in that position next to Jonah a lot.”
While these are some of the first difficult decisions Porter has to make as the Crew’s head coach, they will certainly not be the last. In just a couple of weeks, the Black & Gold play three games in eight days, meaning squad rotation will likely be necessary.
Porter is aware of what’s coming and will be looking to make the appropriate changes when that time comes.
“If you’re not ready for that, you’re not going to be in this job for very long,” he said. “So we’re preparing every single guy every single day. I probably talk to the guys that aren’t playing more than the guys that are because you’ve got to keep them on board.”
The life of a head coach is a stressful one, trying to make decisions like these to push the team to success throughout a season. For Porter, though, having to make calls between multiple good players is a luxury rather than a burden, as the case could be that he doesn’t have enough good players and has to go with the same starting 11 each week.
“Tough decisions for me this week in a couple of positions,” Porter said, “but also easy decisions because I can’t make a wrong one.”