Saying the last month has been difficult for Columbus Crew SC would be an understatement. The team lost five consecutive games between April 13 and May 4 before finally earning a win over the LA Galaxy on May 8. The thought was the 3-1 victory over the Galaxy would spark a turnaround, but then the team endured another setback with a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Los Angeles Football Club on Saturday.
Before the loss to LAFC, the Crew got even worse news when goalkeeper Zack Steffen and left back Waylon Francis were ruled out of the game. Steffen arrived at training on Thursday with a swollen foot that is believed to have occurred in the win against the Galaxy. He was seen in a walking boot prior to the match. Francis picked up a thigh injury on Friday and was a late scratch from the Black & Gold’s game day roster.
On Saturday, Columbus travels to face Minnesota United and could be without both starters once again. Both Steffen, who was still in the walking boot, and Francis were added to the injury report on Thursday as questionable for the game, joining right back Harrison Afful and left back Milton Valenzuela.
According to head coach Caleb Porter, Steffen is day to day, as the team continues to monitor his strange foot injury. Francis, according to Porter, is “progressing.”
“He’s probably doubtful for the match based on having a soft tissue strain,” Porter said of Francis on Thursday. “It was just a week, right? He’s probably another week away unless he heals really quickly in the next two days. You never know. I’m not trying to be coy. But he’s probably out.”
With those two out against LAFC, backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik and versatile defender Josh Williams started. In his second start of the season, Bendik made some important saves for the Black & Gold but also allowed three goals. Williams, who played at right back while Hector Jimenez moved to the left side, played well but offered less offensively from the fullback position. If these two are out again on Saturday, Bendik and Williams are once again the likely replacements.
While Valenzuela will miss the remainder of the year after tearing his ACL in the preseason, Afful will be back on the field for the Crew in the near future. The fullback suffered a broken jaw in the first half of the March 30 win against Atlanta United and has been out since. Afful recently had the wires holding in place his repaired jaw removed, but is still on the road to recovery and will miss at least a couple more weeks.
“He’s got the wiring off. He still has bands on, he’s still no contact but he’s doing fitness,” Porter updated on Afful. “So actually we can start to progress his fitness. I think he’ll be available for those two homes games (at the) end of June for sure, and possibly Open Cup prior to that. I think it would be very tight for him to factor in the next three games. Maybe New York City FC but I think he probably won’t be fit enough. But that would be a nice bonus if he’s available that game.”
Afful is on track to be cleared to return to full practice just before the June 1 game against NYCFC but given that he won’t have taken part in any soccer activities in two months, it would be difficult to reinsert him into the lineup so quickly. Following that contest, the Crew has 22 days between games as MLS goes on its summer Gold Cup break. Over that time, the Black & Gold will play in the U.S. Open Cup, which is Afful’s likely return.
Dealing with injuries is part of any sports season but the Crew has been hit hard here in the early part of 2019. Although it may still take some time, the Black & Gold are working back to full health and putting the group that started the season 4-1-1 and was on top of the Eastern Conference back on the field.