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Crew look to make late-season run with returning national team players providing spark

The Black & Gold are nearly back to full strength and looking to bounce back.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Columbus Crew at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

For multiple months now, Columbus Crew SC fans have heard about players missing games and that being a reason for the team’s struggles.

It started with injuries. Milton Valenzuela was lost for the year before the season even started. Fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis each missed extended time. Federico Higuain tore his ACL in May. The list goes on.

But following the 2-2 draw with New York City FC on June 1, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder and captain Wil Trapp, forward Gyasi Zardes and center back Jonathan Mensah all left for international duty. While Steffen is not coming back due to his summer transfer to Manchester City, the other three missed six total games, including two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and four Major League Soccer contests. Over that stretch without the team’s national team players, the Crew went 1-5, with the only win coming against a USL side in the Open Cup.

As of this week, Trapp, Zardes and Jonathan are back. Trapp and Zardes returned on Monday and were back in training with their Black & Gold teammates on Wednesday after the United States Men’s National Team’s run to the Gold Cup final. Jonathan returned Wednesday night after helping Ghana to the Round of 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations before losing on penalty kicks to Tunisia.

Given that the Crew has just one win in its last 14 matches, getting back three of the better players on the roster couldn’t happen at a better time.

”It just helps to bring back two guys that are internationals,” head coach Caleb Porter said Wednesday after Trapp and Zardes rejoined the group. “Even just today in training, the level went up a couple of notches.”

Trapp and Zardes are expected to step right back into the starting lineup for the Crew after playing in a similar system for Gregg Berhalter with the U.S. Jonathan returned dealing with a bit of a knee injury and is likely to play Saturday at Orlando City but is not a certainty.

In all three cases, these players bring back a different level of play that the team hopes can spread.

”Wil and I are hard workers and we give it all we’ve got,” Zardes said upon their return. “So we’re obviously going to push our teammates and our teammates are going to push us.”

Trapp hopes that the experience of playing in higher intensity games and in matches where you have to win to advance can also be something the national team players can bring to Columbus. Given the Black & Gold currently sit in second to last place in the Eastern Conference and are six points out of the final playoff spot, the team is nearly in a must-win situation.

”I think it’s back against the wall,” Trapp said of the Crew’s situation. “So we have to respond. We have to move forward with the right mentality. But it starts with winning a game. Just focus on one game.”

The Crew are in a hole, there’s no doubting that. At this point, the Black & Gold are on the outside looking in at the playoffs but a weak bottom of the East has kept hopes alive of a postseason berth if the team can get its act together quickly and start getting points.

Since the 4-0-1 start to the year for Columbus, Porter has said he believes his team will get back on track once it has its pieces training and playing together consistently. Now, with the Crew mostly healthy, new additions either in town or on the way and the national team players back, Porter is feeling good about his team’s chances of making a run to close out the year.

”Now that we start to get to full strength, I think we can focus more on a set plan and set lineup and a consistent identity game in and game out,” he said. “We just weren’t in that situation the last 13 games.

”Fourteen games to go, can we write a good story in this final chapter?... I’m excited about our next 14 games, I really am. And I know I’ve got a good group that can make a real run at this and I know we’re going to trend upwards and I know we’re going to look more and more like the team identity-wise that we want to look like. “