The Columbus Crew knew July was going to be a difficult month. There was near certainty that Gyasi Zardes, Eloy Room, Kevin Molino and Derrick Etienne Jr. would be called up to their various national teams to play in the Gold Cup. Luis Diaz was another possibility.
President and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter planned for this period, adding depth last offseason to make sure that when players did get called up, there would be options available.
What Bezbatchenko and Porter didn’t plan for was the rash of injuries the 2021 Crew has endured that tested that depth earlier than anticipated. Now the Black & Gold enter this difficult July stretch without 11 players. Six of these players are away on Gold Cup duty — the five mentioned above plus midfielder Liam Fraser who arrived on loan from Toronto FC in May — and five more are out with injuries.
“We’re in a very challenging situation with 11 guys gone or out,” Porter said on Wednesday. “So we’re very thin.”
While Columbus would love to have any of Milton Valenzuela, Artur, Aidan Morris, Josh Williams or Bradley Wright-Phillips healthy, it is the striker and winger positions where the team is hit the hardest.
Heading into Friday night’s Hell is Real Derby against FC Cincinnati, the Crew has a real question about who will start up top. Zardes is the team’s top scorer and found his four MLS goals this year in the last five games. Wright-Phillips has only played 202 minutes so far for the Black & Gold this season but was signed in December to fill Zardes’ shoes when the team’s top goal scorer in each of the previous three seasons was away.
“We really brought Bradley in to be starting these games. That’s really the main reason we signed him was we knew that Gyasi would be leaving for the Gold Cup,” Porter said. “So we signed Bradley to be the guy to step in, we knew he was a goal scorer and a starter in this league.”
While Wright-Phillips, who has 116 goals in 219 MLS games, is listed as questionable for the trip to Cincinnati, it is unlikely he will feature after missing the last four games with a thigh injury. This leaves Porter with a question of what to do.
Columbus recently brought back forward Miguel Berry from on loan with USL Championship side San Diego Loyal, where he scored three goals in seven matches. But the second-year professional has just one minute of MLS experience leaving a very small track record that he could fill the hole left by Zardes or Wright-Phillips.
If Porter doesn’t trust Berry to do that job for the Crew until Wright-Phillips is healthy, where do the Black & Gold turn? Could the team operate with a “False 9,” or without a true striker on the field, against its Ohio rivals?
Porter obviously wasn’t giving much away ahead of the match but did share that there are options for Columbus even without a true striker.
“Do we change formation? Do we look at perhaps some different rotations? I don’t like the terminology ‘false’ this, that, but at the end of the day, you’d be surprised,” he said. “There are guys that can play up top that you’d never think about. Maybe it’s not a No. 9, maybe you play a two-front. Maybe you play, like I said, a different formation, or you just roll with Miguel.”
While not for this game, there is also the option to add another player to the roster. The Crew has an open senior spot and the transfer window is now open, meaning bringing in someone who could help while Zardes is away, given he could miss as many as seven games, and Wright-Phillips gets fit might make sense and an avenue, Massive Report has learned, the team is exploring.
If the Black & Gold go this route, the team would ideally like to find someone who can play not only as a striker but also on the wings. Given Columbus is down to just Pedro Santos and Alexandru Matan as true wingers, adding depth to that position over the next few weeks would also be ideal.
“We know also in these next five to six games that we’ve got compacted windows where we’ve got three in seven, three in eight a couple times coming up here, not this week, but the next week,” Porter said. “So when you really start to break it down like we have, it would probably be good to get an extra guy that can play up top and on the wing both because, again, we’re very, very thin at the No. 9 position and at the winger position.”
Regardless of what the team does on Friday and going forward in terms of a lineup, the Crew must find ways to score goals. This has been a struggle at times even with Zardes on the field and now other players must step up and put the ball in the back of the net as the Black & Gold enter a crucial portion of the season.
“Obviously Gyasi is an important piece for the team. He’s the top scorer, he’s the guy who will always work for the ball,” Santos said this week. “Obviously without him, we need to find another way and we have other quality players who can score goals and we are confident for the game and for the next game and for sure we will score goals.”