Amidst a tumultuous time in league history with the poorly received rebrand, there is still a season going on. A busy one, at that.
The Columbus Crew is in the heart of a stretch of a lot of games in a short amount of time. CONCACAF Champions League play worked its way into the team’s regular schedule before the exit from the tournament earlier this month, forcing the team into seven matches in May and six games in 19 days.
A hot topic heading into the 2021 MLS season was the depth the team added in the offseason, signing the likes of forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, midfielders Perry Kitchen, Kevin Molino and Alexandru Matan and defender Marlon Hairston. And with players like Vito Wormgoor coming back after long stints away with injury, the roster was stacked to take on long runs in multiple competitions.
The Black & Gold’s depth is truly being tested through this tight stretch of games, and their strengths and weaknesses alike are being exposed.
After their first win of the season on Saturday, 3-1 against D.C. United, head coach Caleb Porter was pleased with aspects of the depth he had seen, while also making clear he saw areas of concern, especially headed into another stretch of short breaks between games.
“It’s taken me, I’ll be honest, a little bit of time to figure out some of the best rotations and patterns of play,” Porter said following the win.
There are positions where Porter believes the depth is stronger and more consistent, such as striker where he has the options of Gyasi Zardes or Wright-Philips. On the wings, Porter has numerous outstanding options and will have even more when Molino comes back from injury.
A more under-the-radar spot of improvement for the Black & Gold has been at left back where they hope to have Milton Valenzuela back soon. While the young Argentine has been out, the Crew has gotten to see Waylon Francis in action. The Costa Rican has struggled with injury in recent years, but Porter is excited to have him healthy and making a big impact. He called Francis the man of the match in Saturday’s win.
“It’s great that we can say, ‘Ok we can pick either one, no problem,’ (in some positions),” Porter said. “That’s what we want in every position.”
In theory, Columbus has that. But early-season injuries have plagued the squad and forced Porter into some tight spots.
Right now, the biggest problem is in the central midfield.
Artur and Darlington Nagbe have been solid in their spots, but neither is totally healthy. Artur didn’t have much time in the preseason due to offseason surgery and Artur. Nagbe suffered a hamstring injury in the Round of 16 of the Champions League and has missed time. In a stretch of games like the one the Crew is in, that gets tricky really fast.
“You don’t want to chew up those guys. It’s a real balancing act to try to get results without getting guys injured in this type of window,” Porter said. “Other than that, we’re getting healthier, and I think our depth is showing.”
The Crew must stay healthy on the road for the team’s next three games as Columbus travels to Toronto FC on Wednesday, the New England Revolution on Sunday and then New York City FC next Saturday before coming back home to take on Toronto again in the last game before a much needed league-wide break in early June.