The question of what is wrong with Columbus Crew SC is one asked by fans numerous times over the last month and a half. Players and staff are likely wondering the same thing following a 4-1-1 start to the year and then losses in eight of the last nine games.
A number of issues came to light during those eight defeats — an inability to score goals and a lack of concentration defensively for 90 minutes chief among them — but one that continues to haunt the Black & Gold is the growing injury list.
“We’ve been kind of manufacturing game plans a little bit based on the personnel we have available,” head coach Caleb Porter said on Tuesday. “We’re still looking to improve in the way that we want to evolve to. But then it also seems like almost every week we lose another guy, which then now compounds the next week and changes somewhat how we craft the plan. So we’ve been in a cycle of that.”
The injuries started even before the Crew’s five-game losing streak. Left back Milton Valenzuela tore his ACL in the preseason and right back Harrison Afful broke his jaw early in the 2-0 victory against Atlanta United on March 30 and has yet to feature for Columbus since. Five games into the season and the Black & Gold were without both starting fullbacks who were key offensively and defensively a year ago and expected to be again in 2019.
Before the 3-0 loss to Los Angeles Football Club on May 11, goalkeeper Zack Steffen and Waylon Francis, Valenzuela’s replacement, each picked up injuries late in the week. Steffen missed the LAFC game and the 1-0 loss to Minnesota United. Francis is still working his way back from a soft tissue injury.
Add in an international windows that saw midfielder Wil Trapp and forward Gyasi Zardes each miss the 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union, two stretches of three games in eight days in back-to-back weeks where the team had to rotate players and Pedro Santos’ absence from the Minnesota trip due to a family issue back in Portugal and it’s been hard for Columbus to develop any consistency or continuity with the lineup.
“It’s not normally how I like to do it,” Porter said of being forced to change his lineup so often through 15 games. “I like a lot of continuity in my teams. I believe in that. There’s no coincidence when teams have continuity and they can build week after week with primarily an 11 and focus on themselves and focus on their identity and their execution, then you are more consistent on both sides of the ball in your performances because the connections are there, they’re built and the understanding and cohesiveness. It’s a massive part of winning games.”
In Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Colorado Rapids, the Crew saw the return of Steffen but added two new names to the injury report. Fullback Hector Jimenez had to leave the game with a concussion just before halftime and playmaker Federico Higuain suffered an “MCL tweak” that forced a substitution in the 67th minute.
Like Gregg Berhalter before him, Porter has a specific style he wants to play. When he took over, the head coach discussed how there would not be many differences between his team and Berhalter’s, which was supposed to make for a smooth transition.
Over the first six games, when the team had its starters more or less every week, preparing for and playing in the matches, the Crew was at the top of the Eastern Conference. While it wasn’t perfect as the players adjusted to Porter and Porter adjusted to the players, the Black & Gold were doing enough to get results.
Losing key pieces, especially at the fullback spot, and then playing without important attackers like Higuain and Santos made an impact on this team.
“It’s difficult because we haven’t really been able to put together the group in a way that we put it together to start the year completely,” Poter said. “With Pedro narrow, outside backs forward, obviously with Pipa playing as the 10 in the way that we want to play him. We haven’t been able to put it all together.
“If you look at now with Pipa possibly being out, who’s going to create goals for us?... We had a long meeting this morning about outside backs. Do we look at a different system? Those different systems might mean moving Pedro to a left back. Do we really want to do that? When you have one of your best chance creators, do you want to move him from where he’s creating goals to a left back position? But that’s also where we’re at. That’s how difficult a situation and how thin we are is literally we’re going to be playing guys at outside back that have never played outside back or guys that haven’t played much this year.”
Throughout the course of a Major League Soccer season, injuries happen and the good teams find a way to adjust. The Crew has been hit hard in the first half of the year with injuries and the depth was tested more than Porter or anyone else expected.
The positive is that after Saturday’s home match against New York City FC, the Black & Gold have 22 days between games due to the Gold Cup break. Columbus will use that time to get healthy and prepare to turn the results around at full strength in the second half of the season.
“If we can get through this game and get three points, find a way to win it, then we can reset a little bit and we’ve got a little break,” Porter said. “We’ll get healthy and now we can start to put the pieces together in a way that we prefer to put the pieces together and now we can hopefully start to build in the second half of the year.”