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How Crew 2 could change the path of the Crew’s first-round 2022 MLS SuperDraft selections

It’s easy to lump draft picks into Crew 2, but it’s more complicated than that for the Black & Gold.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

After a quick stop in Central Ohio, the Columbus Crew arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida Tuesday night to begin the team’s preseason. Starting Wednesday, the Black & Gold push towards the start of the 2022 MLS regular season. While the Crew senior roster still has some work to do to fill key positions, there’s another question heading into the new campaign. Where do Columbus’ two first-round MLS SuperDraft picks fit into the team? The answer’s not so simple.

On Jan. 11, the Crew spent the first round of the college entry draft putting in work. With their No. 12 pick, the Black & Gold selected Saint Louis University goalkeeper Patrick Schulte. Columbus didn’t stop there. The Crew traded back into the first round and chose Notre Dame center back Philip Quinton with the No. 25 selection.

It’s easy to lump any MLS SuperDraft pick into MLS Next Pro, MLS’s new reserve league starting in March. After all, minus a pick like Miguel Berry, SuperDraft selections don’t have a strong track record of sticking it out and making it as an MLS regular with this club of late. Columbus takes part in MLS Next Pro, with Crew 2, but that doesn’t mean the Black & Gold looked at the SuperDraft any differently than in years past.

“I don’t think it changes the draft at all,” said head coach Caleb Porter. “What it does help is to develop guys.”

These players’ first step in that development is the 2022 preseason. Looking at Schulte and Quinton, there’s a strong chance that their development takes different roads because of the construction of the Crew roster and their positions.

Of the two college standouts, Schulte has the strongest chance of going to Crew 2. After all, as Porter shared with the media post-draft, there aren’t many goalkeepers that make the jump directly from the pros to starting in MLS. Also, starting goalkeeper Eloy Room and returning backup veteran Evan Bush are a lock for the senior team and new signing Brady Scott has more experience at the professional level.

The expected turnaround time for somebody like Schulte is between two to three years. The Saint Louis product will have the added benefit of training with the first team, and players like Room and Bush, while getting crucial match minutes with Crew 2. Sometimes goalkeepers can pan out faster and fortunately, he’ll be close by to make an easier switch.

“You don’t want to be throwing a rookie goalkeeper to rely on him game in and game out,” said Porter. “He’s a very talented keeper who fits our style of play.”

Quinton is a different story. Where Schulte has three goalkeepers ahead of him competing for one spot in the starting 11, Quinton has a better chance this preseason to make the senior roster. Currently, Columbus has three center backs on the roster, all veterans. Captain Jonathan Mensah leads the group, along with Josh Williams and new free agent signing Jalil Anibaba.

According to Porter, an MLS team needs four to five starting-caliber center backs, due to injury and managing team minutes. In 2021, the Crew had its fair share of injury issues on the backline with six different players stepping into games in all competitions. Injuries became such an issue that even midfield loanee Liam Fraser started at center back for a spell.

If the Black & Gold wants to return to their dominant 2020 MLS Cup-winning season, defense is where it starts, and Quinton has a strong chance at being in the senior team conversation.

“With Phil Quinton, when you look at where we’re at with Josh and Jonah, he’ll provide depth to those two guys. He’s a winner,” said Porter. “Everybody we talked to said he was a leader and when you look around the MLS and the American defender, they’re often valued on the locker room and on the pitch.”

That type of scouting report, on a 6-foot-6 center back from a top college program like Notre Dame, sounds like a senior team depth piece that can grow into a starting position. Quinton’s height will add an extra element on set pieces and the former high school 800-meter champion won’t have problems keeping up with MLS attackers.

In 2021, Porter moved into a three center back formation at times, most notably in the Campeones Cup, and shared that it’s a system he wants to run but injuries got in the way. Could Quinton excel in the preseason, mesh with his fellow center backs and see his name on the senior roster? Definitely.

The one thing that may hold Quinton, and other draft picks, back, is conditioning. A problem with the current draft system is the amount of time NCAA soccer players compete. Notre Dame played 23 matches in the fall season, from the end of August until their NCAA tournament exit on Dec. 10. A draft pick is expecting to go from a four-month college season to playing 10-11 months in MLS.

That stark contrast in time on the field means that draftees can wear down by midseason. Fortunately, the center back role doesn’t cover as much of the field as a fullback or midfielder. If Quinton can play and train consistently, not only in the preseason but also throughout the regular season, he could defy the route of most SuperDraft picks. With a light core of defenders in front of him, those chances increase.

“Where we’re at with our center backs, we have a lot of experience but it’s starting to fill some of the gaps with some of our depth pieces,” said Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “We’ll see. We’ll learn a lot in preseason.”

And if Quinton needs time to work on fitness or get more game experience, Crew 2 is literally in the team’s backyard, making it easy for young players to transition between the first and reserve teams.

All the scouting reports, highlight reels and statistics are great, but the Black & Gold don’t really know what they have in these draft selections until they’re in the club. That starts now.

The Crew trains in Florida until returning to Columbus on Jan. 28. After a short stint at the OhioHealth Performance Center, the Black & Gold will compete in the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, South Carolina from Feb. 7-19.