For the past handful of seasons, the Columbus Crew always has a versatile utility player on the roster. Under Gregg Berhalter, Hector Jimenez fit that role as someone who could play in nearly every position. It’s beneficial to have a player to fill anyone’s shoes on the pitch and for the 2021 Crew team, that player is Marlon Hairston.
Hairston was signed by Columbus during the 2021 offseason as a fullback project who, it was expected, would learn under veteran Harrison Afful. Late in the preseason, Hairston picked up an injury that kept him sidelined for the first two months, forcing the Crew’s hand in making a fullback signing. MLS veteran Saad Abdul-Salaam was added to the roster and some good performances later, established himself as the primary backup to Afful.
“Our intent was right back,” head coach Caleb Porter said of Hairston this week. “We played him at right back and then he got hurt and he was out about four to five weeks. As he was coming back, we started working him in a little bit more in the midfield because frankly, Saad was playing right back and looked a little more comfortable there.”
Hairston made his Black & Gold debut as a substitute against the Philadelphia Union but didn’t come in as a fullback. He instead stepped in as a central midfielder. In that short stint on the pitch, Hairston showed his athleticism and his knack to get into the penalty box, almost scoring in the dying moments of the match.
Coming in at central midfield is not an area where Hairston is uncomfortable as his positional versatility was discovered early in Columbus.
“It’s a position I’m familiar with. I played a little bit of it when I was in Minnesota,” said Hairston this week. “In college, I was in the same position and in Colorado, when I first came in the league in the midfield. I’m comfortable anywhere on a pitch. Wherever I can play on the pitch to help the team succeed, I’m willing to do it.”
Hairston played two years of collegiate soccer at Louisville and was a first-round pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft by the Colorado Rapids. The 2016 season was a breakout year for Hairston, as he provided three goals and six assists in 14 starts for Colorado, helping the team to an MLS Cup playoff berth before the Rapids lost to the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Final.
His success in Colorado as a right back and winger was halted with a knee injury in 2018 that sidelined him for the entire season. He was traded to the Houston Dynamo for a brief stint and moved to Minnesota prior to last season and was often deployed as a central midfielder.
With Jimenez off to Austin FC, Columbus needed that new versatile player and while Hairston was seen as someone with that versatility, he came to the Crew as a defender who, at least for now, is a midfielder.
“For me, it’s just about being ready when my number is called,” said Hairston. “I think Caleb has given me a great opportunity, trusting me in a position that I wasn’t initially coming here to play.”
The Crew’s depth in center midfield was cut into early with injuries to Aidan Morris and Perry Kitchen during the spring. Kitchen is returning to fitness, but now regular starter Artur is dealing with a right hip injury that will keep him out for some time. Liam Fraser, on loan from Toronto FC, has started the last three games next to Darlington Nagbe but will be gone after Saturday’s match against the New England Revolution to join the Canadian National Team for the Gold Cup.
Hairston’s inclusion in the side will now be necessary with the multiple injuries and international absences the Black & Gold will deal with throughout July. While Artur is the ideal central midfield partner for Nagbe, Hairston can fill the role and offers a similar skill set as the Brazilian that Porter needs in certain games.
“When we played Marlon at center mid, he kind of came to life a little bit and we thought he has got range, Artie (Artur) is out and we know we need a solution,” said Porter. “Liam is a good player but some games, we need more athleticism. I thought he made a big difference in the Philly game and in the Austin game.”
In the 59 minutes on the pitch with the Black & Gold, Hairston has registered two shots, one shot on target, a pass accuracy above 86 percent and shown to be an efficient tackler. His athletic ability makes him the perfect player to slot in during a time when a number of players are unavailable.
With his versatility, Hairston has a chance to help the Crew get back to winning ways and re-ignite his MLS career.
“If you notice, he get’s in the box a little bit and he has the range to go box-to-box,” said Porter. “He does have goals in him because he has played on the wing. I think you’ll see him more in the midfield or on the wing especially in these next five to six games.”