Pedro Santos has been a versatile player since he joined the Columbus Crew in 2017. The Portuguese was signed by former head coach Gregg Berhalter to play on the wing but was also deployed in the No. 10 role when playmaker Federico Higuain was unavailable. This remained the case under Caleb Porter, who was unafraid to use Santos centrally when Higuain or new playmaker Lucas Zelarayan missed time.
This season, however, Santos has taken versatility to a new level, one former Crew Swiss Army Knife, Hector Jimenez, would be proud of. In 2021, Santos’ versatility grew to a new level.
Against Toronto FC on May 29, Santos started the game at left back with regulars Milton Valenzuela and Waylon Francis both out with injuries. The winger finished the game with two assists in a 2-1 win, his first two of the year.
“Obviously I think I did well,” Santos said after the TFC game. “I did everything that the coach asked of me. And like always, if I play left back or on the wing or No. 10, I always try to do my best, work hard for the team and I’m happy because I had two assists and we won the game, which is the most important thing.”
In the Black & Gold’s second win of the season, Santos not only started at left back but rotated into midfield in the second half. This was not his normal winger position or the No. 10 role in which he has often also operated but rather Santos moved into a central role, this time deeper, playing as a holding midfielder starting in the 74th minute with Artur left the match.
Lacking much in the way of options, Porter had to find a way to close out the game against TFC. Just as he trusted Santos to be reliable on the left side, he also trusted him to step into a different role in the center of the park and help Columbus secure three points.
“With Pedro, he’s such a valuable piece for us,” Porter said. “He’s obviously a part of our very important core. In this league, you need guys that are versatile and you need guys that are healthy and he’s healthy every game. That’s a simple thing. If you’ve got a guy that’s healthy every game, he’s going to be a key guy and he can play different positions. His work rate's incredible and he’s not a selfish player, he’s a team guy.”
Santos’ positional diversity continued over the last two games. After his two-assist performance against Toronto, the Portuguese started at left back in each of the last two contests following the three-week international break against the Chicago Fire and the Philadelphia Union.
As it turns out, this is a position Santos prefers. After growing up as a winger, he first played at left back regularly when he was 16 and succeeded. While he returned to the winger position, he recognized that his skill set fits those of the players that typically line up behind him.
“When I was younger, I played two years as a left back, and I was pretty good at left back,” Santos explained. “It’s my style. I like to do tackles, I like to play aggressive in a good way, with the ball and without the ball and this is why I think I’m good at the left back because, for me, it’s a little bit more easy to play than a winger.
“The biggest difference is I play toward the goal; I play always looking forward. So when I play on the wing and I need to come into the pockets, sometimes I play with my face turned toward our goal and I have the defenders behind me. I need to be careful. So playing at the left back, I always play facing forward and I can see the whole field. I can see more of the space and, in my opinion, I think it’s easier to play as a left back than a winger.”
Santos’ success at left back isn’t just based on his ability to go forward. The winger, who has always been a willing defender, is able to handle the other side of the ball as well, something that other wingers in the league who occasionally play as a fullback don’t always manage as well.
Specifically in the win against the Fire, Santos was back making tackles and keeping Chicago from generating any attack down the right side as much as he was serving crosses in from the flanks. It’s this willingness to put in a shift that Porter appreciates about the Portuguese.
“He’s very well rounded,” Porter said of Santos. “He’s honest defensively, he’s extremely fit, his work rate is second to none and he’s technical. He’s got an educated left foot and it’s tough for teams to have to worry about essentially a winger who’s bombing on at left back.
“His work rate’s incredible and he’s not a selfish player, he’s a team guy. That’s why I have so much time for him.”
In Wednesday’s 1-0 loss against the Union, Santos again started the game at left back. With 30 minutes remaining in the match, Valenzuela made his return after nearly two months out, coming in for Alexandru Matan and pushing Santos forward. Following the change, the Portuguese played on either wing, helping Columbus dominate possession and search for an equalizer.
Having played his entire career at left back, Valenzuela was not surprised by Santos’ ability to step in in the role.
“He’s a great player and I knew it wouldn’t be a big deal for him to do it,” Valenzuela said of his teammate. “His skills allow him to play in quite a few different positions and he’s done it a lot playing more centrally. When a player has good technique and understands the game, it makes it much easier and these are probably two of his main strengths.”
In MLS, with roster restrictions and a salary cap, having a player who can serve a team in multiple roles is important. Santos has pushed that to a new extreme with his ability to not only start at left back, either winger position or the No. 10, but also fill in at other spots on the field when needed.
This is something Santos takes pride in and makes him a key cog for the Black & Gold.
“In training, I always pay attention to everything,” he explained. ‘Even when the coach talks with the center backs, the fullbacks or the D-mids, I pay attention. I try to understand everything because when I’m on the pitch, I try to help everybody. So if they miss something, I’m one more guy to help on the pitch because, like I said, I pay attention to everything and I try to learn from every position and this has been good for me because I’m switching positions and I can do a couple of positions and I’m helping the team.”