It’s a “strange” week for Columbus Crew SC.
With an international break on the weekend, the Black & Gold don’t have a game to prepare for after 11 straight weeks with a game or more. The Crew is also without five players, all of which have featured prominently this year, away on international duty with their respective countries.
On top of that, a number of players are out of full training this week as the Columbus medical staff looks to get them back from various injuries. This list includes Waylon Francis, Hector Jimenez, Josh Williams, Youness Mokhtar and Connor Maloney.
That leaves the Black & Gold with 10 senior roster players for head coach Caleb Porter to work with throughout the week.
But the Crew isn’t looking at this as a reason to take time off or take it easy. In fact, Porter sees it as an opportunity to have a closer eye on some of the guys who aren’t regular starters that may not get highlighted in practice as much when the team’s at full strength.
“It’s good because you strip away kind of your group that’s probably in the lineup,” Porter said this week. “There’s a reason they’re going on international duty. It’s because they’re your senior players, your top players, are guys that have proven that they can get the job done at the international level. So it’s nice to kind of see the group without those guys, and to see who emerges, especially in your two, three spots.”
Among this group are forwards Romario Williams and Jordan Hamilton, both of whom haven’t seen many minutes since joining Columbus in mid-summer due to the presence of U.S. international Gyasi Zardes. Williams has made six appearances, one start, since joining the team on July 1 in a trade with Atlanta United and Hamilton has come off the bench just twice since his July 11 arrival from Toronto FC.
For Porter, this week is a chance for the two forwards — along with players such as backup goalkeeper Jon Kempin and midfielder Eduardo Sosa — to show what they can do without the starter getting the reps ahead of them.
“That competition and who’s in the two, the three, who’s in the one, those are all things that have to be, there has to be a genuine process to get to that,” the head coach said. “And nobody sees training and nobody knows what that looks like. So I think, at the end of the day, I’ve always had to be true to who’s earning those minutes and earning those opportunities.”
But it’s not as if the key players for the Black & Gold get to relax this week with no game on Saturday. Players such as Pedro Santos, Harrison Afful, Luis Argudo and David Accam all need to maintain both their fitness and level of play to be ready to get back to regular training and preparation next week.
While the focus is still on improving and preparing for the end of the season stretch, the team did get to have a bit more fun than a normal week. On Wednesday, the 10 Crew players along with the 12 Academy prospects called up this week broke into smaller teams and competed in a tournament-style competition. Wins were tracked and a “Supporters’ Shield” and “MLS Cup” winner was crowned.
On Friday, a group made up largely of first-team players took on an Academy team plus Hamilton/Williams — the forwards changed teams at halftime — in a full-field, 11 v. 11 scrimmage.
These types of training days allow for the goals of fitness and high intensity to be met, while also allowing the players to enjoy themselves a bit, something that doesn’t happen as much with the business-like approach of a game week. It also allowed for those 12 Academy players, some of them in the 15-year age group, to get a look at what life is like training as a professional and competing against first-team players. This week gave the Columbus coaches a chance to see these young players in this environment, which could be beneficial in the future.
With so many players gone and the next game against Atlanta still over a week away, Porter had to find a way to keep the players available sharp and use this week to continue to build his group. He feels the Crew accomplished that and will be ready to get back to work early next week.
“I think it’s been a good week,” he said. “Just from the standpoint of building mentality, continuing to push mentality and letting guys compete. And obviously you want to, if you can, use it to get certain guys healthy, which we’re doing. Also certain guys we want to push even further. And then as a team, we just have to stay sharp and ready.”