Sometimes, in both life and soccer, it’s necessary to take a step back in order to take two forward. That apparently has been the case for Columbus Crew SC center back Alex Crognale, who recently returned to the team after a loan spell with United Soccer League’s Indy Eleven and seems to be raising his stock with first-year head coach Caleb Porter on a daily basis.
The 24-year-old Crognale signed as a Homegrown Player prior to the 2017 season and, after playing in 17 matches during his rookie campaign, it the defender was a victim of the Crew’s notable depth at the center back spot. He appeared in just five games in 2018, a year in which he was loaned out to USL’s Orange County SC.
The situation was similar over the first half of 2019 and the defender was again loaned out, now to the much closer Indy Eleven. During his time always from Columbus, all he wanted to do was to take advantage of the opportunity to be on the field.
“It’s always good for a player who’s not getting minutes to go and get games,” he said. “So I went to Indy and had very successful six games. I felt good, I felt confident and obviously the staff here felt that I was in a good enough place to come back and fight for a spot.”
The move, however, was perceived by many as a step back as the USL’s playing level is obviously anywhere near Major League Soccer’s. With that being the case, how possibly could a player progress in an environment in which he wouldn’t be challenged to the best of his abilities?
For Crognale, though, regardless of what a player has around him, there’s always an opportunity for improvement.
“I think that as long as you have the right mentality going into those games and you focus on your individual performance and on helping your team, you control what you can control,” he explained. “That’s what I looked to do every week.”
His strategy, it seems, worked just fine. Crognale was called back by the Crew and with Jonathan Mensah on National Team duty with Ghana and Josh Williams injured, he got to play his first minutes with the Black & Gold on the season in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Paired with Gaston Sauro, the young center back had a promising performance and helped the team to secure its first clean sheet since April 6.
“Anytime I’ve played with Alex, he’s always been rock solid,” goalkeeper Jon Kempin, who started the game against the Riverhounds, said. “To put him in there with Gaston, two big bodies, they were awesome. I always love to play with Alex, we’re good friends, and to see him in there getting a chance, he definitely took it and he did very well.”
Crognale’s efforts on Tuesday were also praised by Porter in the post-game press conference. The coach revealed that the decision to bring the defender back to Columbus was not made because he felt he could fill in the spot open by Lalas Abubakar’s loan to the Colorado Rapids.
Instead, Porter remarked that after tracking Crognale’s performances in Indianapolis he had no doubts he could bring something important to the Crew.
“Part of the reason why we felt confident letting Lalas go out on loan was because we knew Alex and we felt really good about him,” Porter said. “He’s a good player, good on the ball, he’s good in the air, he’s got a lot of tools and he’s very steady and reads the game well. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, is very cerebral. We have been following him in all of his games with Indy Eleven and we felt confident that he could cover us.”