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Crew getting ‘top guys’ back from injury as MLS Cup playoff push begins

The Black & Gold are hopefully getting healthy at the right time.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Since before the 2021 Major League Soccer season began, the Columbus Crew has dealt with injuries. The talk for most of the year has been about the team finally getting healthy as the defending MLS Cup champions have struggled far more than anyone anticipated.

It’s been said before, but it actually seems like the Black & Gold are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to all the injuries heading into Saturday’s game at Inter Miami.

Last week against Orlando City SC, center back Josh Williams returned after nearly three months out. Despite losing 3-2, it was clear the impact he made on the team. When the team’s injury report came out on Thursday evening, it listed left back Milton Valenzuela, forward Gyasi Zardes and central midfielder Marlon Hairston as questionable.

While that may not seem like a huge win for the Crew, all three of these players have missed significant time of late and having them back in training and potentially available for Saturday night’s game is a step in the right direction. When fully healthy, Valenzuela and Zardes are both certain starters and Hairston is a crucial reserve, especially with Artur remaining out.

Valenzuela has been out since early July. Zardes last played on Aug. 18. Hairston, who had started seven of eight games before his injury, hasn’t suited up in over a month.

Getting these players back would be a major boost and could help turn around a season that thus far has the Crew sitting three points outside the MLS Cup playoff picture.

“When you have the top guys in, there’s a reason they’re the top guys,” head coach Caleb Porter said on Friday. “There’s a reason why they make more money. There’s a reason why they’ve proven themselves. It’s not just because I like them because they’re good guys, it’s because they’re good guys and good players. When you put a team together, it’s like pieces to a puzzle. When you have pieces missing, that puzzle doesn’t fit quite as good and there are holes. We’ve managed that a little bit.”

When the Black & Gold are at full strength, Valenzuela defends well, typically locking down the opposing team’s winger and getting forward to create width down the left side of the field, serving the ball into the penalty box with nine career assists.

The target on many of Valenzuela’s crosses is often Zardes. In his four seasons in Columbus, the United States international is not only the team’s leading scorer but the leading American scorer in MLS.

Hairston may be a new addition to the team this year, and a player that was initially expected to play right back for the Crew, but he performed well deputizing for Artur in central midfield in his 10 appearances for Columbus since debuting in late May.

All of these players, as well as Williams, have experience playing in big games and in pressure situations, which is what the Crew will be doing through the 11 games remaining in the MLS regular season as the team hopes to return to the playoffs.

“That’s why they’re first-choice guys,” Porter said. “They have a good mentality, are consistent performers. That’s why they get picked because they perform consistently and you know what you get and under pressure, they’ve been able to get the job done over time.”

But it’s not just on game day where the Black & Gold have missed players this year. With players having to sit out due to injuries, practices have not had the same level of competition.

Top players bring a higher level every day and having them on the field at training makes the whole team better. The Crew will benefit from the likes of Williams, Valenzuela, Zardes and Hairston all competing each day.

“I think that also is a huge factor,” Williams said. “I think having that competitiveness around the training facility can only raise your game. And then that way it’s truly a fight for who starts, who gets playing time and that just allows the whole team to lock in.”

For the last several weeks, Porter hasn’t had much in the way of decisions to make in terms of his starting lineup and substitutes. In the game against Orlando last week, Columbus had two players short of a full bench. That has been a trend this season.

With these players now available for selection, it makes Porter’s decisions more difficult, a headache he is willing to deal with.

“It’s the first time in five, six weeks that I’ve actually had to make choices, to be honest with you, on the lineup and on the bench,” Porter said. “There haven’t been any choices on who dresses. It’s been whoever’s healthy. And in a lot of ways, the 11 has been given based on who’s healthy. So this is the first week I’ve even had choices to make on lineup and bench, which is good. And we’ll need it next week because we have three games in eight days.”

Given that these players are coming back from long-term injuries and have just recently returned to training, Porter will have to manage minutes. While Williams has already made his return, playing 37 minutes off the bench last week, Valenzuela, Zardes and Hairston are still working their way back to full fitness, meaning they aren’t ready for 90-minute performances.

“We don’t have guys that are ready completely for 90 minutes,” Porter said. “So that’s going to be a real challenge. We have a game two days later. And you look at Gyasi, you look at Milton and Marlon, if you had a week off after this game, you could probably push them a little bit further. But you know you have another game two days later, so you have to kind of slowly build guys up and we have to decide, is it better to start a certain way or end a certain way? All those things are kind of tricky.”

Tricky is one thing. But Porter and the Crew will take tricky over what the team has dealt with in terms of injuries for the rest of the season.