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The Crew’s added depth is being tested earlier than expected

The Black & Gold expected to rotate for the Champions League leg two. But now that may be forced.

Photo courtesy of CONCACF

The Columbus Crew knew the 2021 season would be tough. Not only are the Black & Gold the reigning MLS Cup champions, which puts a target on the team’s back, but winning that title means the Crew is in more competitions than during last year’s run.

Because Columbus knew this heading into the season, president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter planned in the offseason for more games and match congestion. They stated the team wanted to put more trophies in the trophy case and prepared by adding more quality depth.

What they didn’t expect was for that depth to be tested so soon.

“We’re still not healthy,” Porter said this week. “But I think with our depth, we’ve been able to manage it and that’s what you want. You don’t want anybody talking about the injuries. There’s a lot of them.”

Throughout the preseason, the Crew battled the injury bug with a number of guys missing time with various ailments. The hope was that players would be back by the time the games began to matter.

That was not the case.

For Columbus’ first meaningful game of the 2021 season, last Thursday’s CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 first leg, the Black & Gold had six players unavailable against Real Esteli.

Center back Vito Wormgoor continues his recovery from a broken ankle suffered last July. Fellow central defender Aboubacar Keita had not been cleared from health and safety protocols in time for the match. The same was true for right back Harrison Afful. New acquisitions Marlon Hairston (knee) and Kevin Molino (hamstring) didn’t make the trip to Nicaragua and Alexandru Matan is still in quarantine after his arrival in Columbus the week prior to the game.

Then in the match, the Crew had midfielder Darlington Nagbe subbed off with an apparent injury and winger-turned-right-back Derrick Etienne Jr. limping late in the game after a hard tackle — Pedro Santos was also subbed off but, per Porter, it was not an injury issue. Nagbe is dealing with a hamstring and Etienne suffered an ankle sprain.

The good news is that, aside from Molino, who is out four to six weeks, all of these injuries are minor and shouldn’t see players miss much time. The bad news is the Black & Gold have the second leg against Esteli on Thursday followed by the MLS season opener against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, the Philadelphia Union, on Sunday.

“It’s kind of an atypical week, a little tricky,” Porter said. “Mostly because it’s a Thursday-Sunday and the Sunday is obviously our home opener, so it’s an important game. It’s always important to get off to a good start, get your first three points in the regular season.”

But there is more good news. The first is that because of the offseason planning, Columbus has the depth to deal with these types of short windows, even while also battling injuries.

Molino will be missed but the Crew essentially has its entire winger corps back from last year. The Black & Gold have options to replace Nagbe — Aidan Morris, Artur, Perry Kitchen and Isaiah Parente can all play in the central midfield — if he has to miss any time. Afful and Hairston should be back soon, but Columbus proved willing to play a winger at right back if needed.

“Depth is always important,” Porter said. “Depth helps me sleep at night. A lack of depth gives me gray hairs and doesn’t allow me to sleep because I know in this game and in this job anything can happen on any given day always. If you’re not prepared for that, if you’re not ready for it, if you don’t have depth for that then you’re going to be one of the guys that says, ‘Yeah, we were injured and we lost.’ I learned that over time.

“So the more players that we can get, the more guys that we can go to, being prepared for any problem, any issue, any issue at any time is key.”

The other piece of good news when it comes to two games in four days this week is that the plan, even before the injuries, was to rotate in leg two against Esteli if the Crew got a big lead in Nicaragua. The Black & Gold did just that, coming home with a 4-0 advantage, meaning Porter hopes to have a squad ready to go for Sunday’s MLS game at historic Crew Stadium.

“That puts us in a great position for this second leg, which is the position we wanted to be in,” the head coach said. “So in looking at this week, we’ll kind of kill two birds with one stone. We’ll prep all week for both games and we have a plan for Thursday with how we’re going to approach that and a big part of that plan is making sure that on Sunday we have a fresh group to come in.”

While it came quicker than expected, the Crew knew injuries and match congestion would be an issue at some point this season. Hoping for deep runs in both the Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup — two tournaments that weren’t on the schedule a year ago — plus the normal rigors of MLS play, Bezbatchenko and Porter wanted to be prepared.

And while fans worrying about injuries and getting results is natural, Porter believes this team is equipped to deal with whatever comes its way.

“Don’t worry. We’ve got good guys,” he sent a message to the supporters to end his press conference. “We’ll figure out ways to win no matter what this year and we showed that last year as well... Let me lose sleep. You guys can sleep well and hopefully you’ll sleep well because we win games.”