Injuries are becoming the norm for Columbus Crew SC. A number of players missed time last year, one of multiple reasons the Crew lost 16 games, the most defeats suffered by the team since 2013, and missed the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
The injury bug has struck again to begin 2020. In the first two games of the year, central defender Vito Wormgoor and left back Milton Valenzuela each sustained injuries that forced them to miss action. While both recovered during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Valenzuela suffered a minor injury that kept him out of practice and forced him out of the first game of the MLS is Back Tournament and Wormgoor sustained an ankle injury in that first match against FC Cincinnati which saw him leave the bubble in Orlando, Florida and miss the rest of the tournament.
It’s not just Wormgoor and Valenzuela either. Winger Pedro Santos missed the first game of the tournament with an injury, forward Fanendo Adi was held out of training and left back Waylon Francis and forward Jordan Hamilton are yet to make the extended bench through three games in Orlando.
And the list doesn’t end there. Goalkeeper Eloy Room suffered a hamstring injury late in Game 2 against the New York Red Bulls. While he soldiered on with no substitutes remaining, Room will miss “several games minimum,” according to head coach Caleb Porter.
Take a deep breath because we’re not done yet.
“With Lucas, a lot of people don’t realize but he’s had actually a sore ankle for all three games,” Porter said of playmaker Lucas Zelarayan following the Black & Gold’s 1-0 win against Atlanta United on Tuesday night. “So he’s been dealing with a little bit of a sprained ankle and it’s been sore, it’s limited his training, it’s limited his minutes in games.”
Zelarayan did not start against Atlanta but entered the game in the 61st minute. According to Porter, the team didn’t feel Zelarayan could play from the opening whistle after not training in full all week but knew he could give the Crew 20-30 minutes.
Winger Youness Mokhtar, who scored his first goal for Columbus against Cincinnati and found the back of the net again against United, had to leave the game on Tuesday before halftime after going down in the 41st minute. Like Room, Mokhtar could miss time going forward.
“It looks to be a muscle strain,” Porter of the winger. “He kind of went down, reached for the ball awkwardly and it’s too bad. He’s done really, really well. This is the best he’s been playing since he’s arrived at the club. He’s looking like the player that we envisioned.
“We’ll see where Youness is at. I would guess that he’s probably going to be limited in the next game just like Eloy Room.”
That is a rather long list, but the Crew isn’t the only team to have players suffer injuries leading up to or during the MLS is Back Tournament. A look at the MLS injury report, which is updated regularly, shows all but three teams taking part in the tournament dealing with some kind of issue.
After more than three months off before teams could return to regular practice and four months between games due to the virus, injuries were bound to happen. Add in the weather conditions in Orlando in July and it’s not hard to see why so many players are dealing with issues.
“In these conditions with the heat, a pretty short runway coming in, you’re seeing that we’re taking a few injuries, which, I think if you look at most every team, it’s the same,” Porter said. “And that’s not surprising. We knew that would happen with the shortened runway and obviously coming off the four months.”
Despite the injuries, though, the Crew isn’t suffering the same results as a year ago. The Black & Gold went 3-0-0 in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, scoring seven goals and conceding none, the only team to record three consecutive shutouts.
Data shows that replacing five or more players in a starting 11 from one game to another can lead to worse results, but Porter did just that between Game 1 and Game 2 and won both games by multiple goals. In Game 3, Columbus made seven changes to the lineup, some forced, and, although it wasn’t pretty, earned a third straight win.
Porter believes the team’s success in the transfer market deserves credit for his ability to rotate players and not miss a beat.
“I think our signings have been excellent,” the head coach explained. “I think every player we’ve brought in has been of the profile that we look for in each position. And when you hit on profiles then you can make changes because you know what you’re getting.
“We train 20 guys every day to play. We don’t just train the 11; we train, with the goalkeepers, 22 players every single day, the 1, 2. And so when we’re working on things, we’re not just working on the 11, we’re working on the 22 and everybody is getting the same reps for the most part and we have a clear identity of how we play.”
Obviously, the Crew prefers to have a healthy team. Seeing players such as Wormgoor, Room, Mokhtar or any member of the roster miss time with injuries is a disappointment.
But Porter and his staff are realistic and understand that injuries happen, especially in a unique season such as this one. Although they didn’t see a pandemic or a tournament in Orlando coming, the Black & Gold knew depth was essential to success in 2020 and the results speak for themselves early in the year.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Porter said. “We’ve played a lot of guys in these three games. Nearly every single guy on the team has factored in at least for one minute or more in every game. So that’s a great thing. You need that in MLS, I’ve said it time and again. We’re going to continue to need it. We’re going to continue to need guys to come into games.”