A sports team can have a season derailed by injuries; fans have seen it time and time again. Five games into its 2021 season, the Columbus Crew isn’t at the level of derailment with its injury list but this tough stretch of games has made the health of the squad as important as getting results.
The Crew was touted by many before the players played together as one of if not the deepest team in Major League Soccer. Before a ball was kicked, Columbus lost an expected starter in Kevin Molino for six to eight weeks. A week later, young midfielder Aidan Morris tore his ACL in the second game of the year, ending his 2021 season.
In the following weeks, multiple Columbus players have had minor to moderate injuries or knocks. The likes of goalkeeper Evan Bush, defenders Jonathan Mensah, Vito Wormgoor and Marlon Hairston, midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen and forward Gyasi Zardes have all missed games with an injury.
Luckily, nearly all of those players are getting back to full health ahead of the Black & Gold’s second leg CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal game against CF Monterrey on Wednesday.
“We’re in better shape than we were this weekend,” said head coach Caleb Porter on Tuesday. “We still have some guys that are probably going to be game-time decisions. We traveled basically everybody that we thought had a chance to maybe play. We put those players on a provisional roster. We’ll train tonight and then we will make final decisions for tomorrow by tonight.”
Mensah missed the last two matches with a tight hamstring but is back to full training and informed the media he was feeling much better. “I'm ready to help the team,” he said Tuesday. Zardes popped his shoulder out in the first leg against Monterrey which caused him to be out in Saturday’s MLS match against FC Montreal. While no official update was made for Zardes, he likely will be a game-time decision.
This Champions League quarterfinal match on Wednesday will be the last for the Crew either of the whole season or until August if the team advances to the semifinals. Next week will be the last time until late June the Black & Gold will have to juggle with a game every three or four days. Porter understands the importance of squad health with MLS play coming in full after Wednesday’s game.
“I always have to manage winning but also making sure that we minimize risk of injury especially early in the year,” said Porter. “It’s important that we go for every game, we don’t prioritize our two main goals, which is CONCACAF Champions League and MLS Cup. We don’t want to prioritize one over the other. We prioritize them both. When you have a game every three days, whether it’s three league games or whether it’s a Champions League and a league game, you have to use your squad and you have to put out enough strength to win the game but also you have to be smart with minimizing your injury risk.”
It’s certainly a tough juggling act to make sure a team puts out the best squad possible to win but also not risk players that aren’t 100 percent. This situation right here is why the Crew was busy in the offseason signing quality players to bring in for depth. Unfortunately for Columbus, that depth is being tested very early on and the hope is to come home to Ohio from Mexico even healthier and in addition with a semifinal spot.
“We have to be very smart about it because we could, in theory, win this game and if we lost another two or three guys to injury, we start to get in trouble a little bit and we don’t want to be behind it in the league,” said Porter.
“I think you will see with every game, we’ll put out what we think is the right plan, a group that is strong enough to win the game, a group that hopefully will be able to get the job done but also, a group that is not gonna hopefully get chewed up and get injured.”