It’s no secret that the Columbus Crew has had injury issues to begin its 2021 campaign. It’s also no secret that the Crew hasn’t had the easiest of starts to the season because of said injuries. These injuries meant that Columbus hasn’t played a game with a full-strength lineup and substitutes all season. It also means the other 26 MLS teams haven’t seen the defending MLS Cup champions at their best.
The expectation surrounding this Black & Gold side was they would be among the best teams in MLS all season with tremendous depth in both the attack and in defense. Expectations quickly turned into some doubts after multiple key players went down with injuries, specifically new signings that were brought in to give the core starters rest. The likes of winger Kevin Molino, midfielder Perry Kitchen and outside back Marlon Hairston are all new Crew players that have already significant time. This fails to mention the current absence of left back Milton Valenzuela and minor injuries to nearly every starter.
Despite all that has gone against Caleb Porter’s side, there positives in regards to results and injuries. The Columbus head coach is choosing to think of the glass being half full.
“We need to focus on the positives,” said Porter. “We just won the game (against New York City FC), we are back at home for two games, our playmaker Lucas Zelarayan is playing out of his mind right now. We are getting healthier. We’re hoping to have Molino back soon. We signed him to help improve our production in the attack. I’m focused on the positives.”
Kevin Molino’s return will certainly be a positive for the Black & Gold who have yet to score a goal from open play this season in the league. Molino was signed in January as a free agent to bolster the wing depth and an early hamstring injury has sidelined him all season thus far. His return is imminent along with multiple other players as MLS approaches a three-week international break.
“We believe we’ll be pretty close with all those guys after the break.” said Porter. “Probably not a lot is going to change going into this game [vs. Toronto]. Maybe Perry Kitchen could be available for some minutes which would help obviously for Artie. The good news is the majority of our guys are healthy and key guys. Milton still not. Molino still not. Some of those pieces again I believe will help improve our production.”
For Saturday’s home match against Toronto FC, it’s likely fans will see a similar lineup to recent matches, with the possible exception of Kitchen returning after being out since mid-April. The veteran midfielder was signed to provide relief for Darlington Nagbe or Artur and play a true central defensive midfield role. In his lone Crew MLS match against the Philadelphia Union, he was one of the best players on the pitch and will be a welcome return to the midfield.
Defensively the only shake-up has been at left back with the recent injury to Valenzuela. The Argentine hasn’t played since April 28 when he scored in the Black & Gold’s 2-2 draw against Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League. He missed all of 2019 with a torn ACL and is one of the most important players on the team with his attacking ability opening up options on the left side of the field.
With Valenzuela returning soon, Porter hopes to see more of the Crew attack fans enjoyed during the team’s MLS Cup run a year ago.
“When Milton is in, it’s going to look a lot like 2020 where we are able to create from our wingers and outside backs,” the head coach said. “Pedro (Santos) and Milton have a very good connection and that left side comes to life a little bit with Pedro, Milton, and Lucas with the way they overload.”
While the season hasn’t gone as planned for Columbus, it also hasn’t gone poorly to start. The Crew has eight points in six matches in the league after juggling Champions League contests and with less depth available than expected. After this upcoming Toronto fixture, the team has a three-week break and will be essentially fully fit and well-rested with nothing but the MLS games to focus on for the remainder of the season.