The Columbus Crew struggled to generate consistent offensive production from the winger positions in 2021. This group as a whole scored just four goals from the run of play, too few as members of the Crew’s attack.
This year, with Pedro Santos out of the rotation, as he is moved to full back, both places on the wings are up for grabs. That will provide plenty of minutes that the new and returning players can take advantage of.
Let’s take a look at the candidates to play on the wing for the Black & Gold.
Derrick Etienne Jr.
Heading into the 2021 season, the plan for Etienne was to be an important depth piece, ideally used to take minutes off Kevin Molino and Pedro Santos. As they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men. Injury at fullback moved Santos around the field and Molino managed only 575 minutes in between injury spells, so the Crew turned to Etienne to shoulder the load.
The Haitian international contributed one goal and five assists in over 1,800 minutes, earning the trust of head coach Caleb Porter and the starting job by the end of the season. At 25 years old, Etienne is entering his prime, and if he can increase his goal contributions further, he can make the position his permanently. He will certainly get the opportunity in 2022.
Yeboah arrived in Columbus this offseason from Polish outfit Wisla Krakow, amid rumored interest from D.C. United, for a fee between $1.4 million and $1.7 million. The Ghanaian winger is goal-dangerous and blessed with pace and a big bag of tricks to reach into. He can play direct and fans should look for him to cut in from his position on the right side and take defenders on at speed.
It remains to be seen if Yeboah can find immediate success in Major League Soccer but he only needs to look to fellow recent-import Steven Moreira for a guide on how to adapt to the league. The potential for the two right-sided players to combine down the flank is tantalizing and the Crew will hope it bears fruit.
If he were healthy, Molino would be at the top of the winger list and the written-in-pen starter. Brought in to aid the Black & Gold’s title defense ahead of the 2021 season, the MLS veteran’s arrival was a statement of intent from the front office and heralded around the league as a smart signing that made a great roster better.
Crew fans had to wait until June to see Molino make his debut in 2021 in the final game at historic Crew Stadium due to a hamstring injury. What followed makes for grim reading: Molino made 10 appearances, during which time Columbus went 1-7-2, and then tore his ACL for the third time in his career in late August. He underwent surgery and is not expected to make his return for the Crew until this summer.
That the club did not cut their losses and use their one annual contract buyout on the winger shows they still have faith in Molino, but it is far from certain that a player can perform the way he used to after one ACL tear, let alone three. Molino will be 32 in June so he is certainly not over the hill and should play significant minutes when he does return to full fitness.
If he can show the talent he did down the stretch in the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs for Minnesota United, Molino could almost act as a mid-season signing for the Black & Gold.
Diaz joined the Crew in July of 2019 to some immediate fanfare, scoring a rocket against Atlanta United. The Costa Rican has yet to fulfill that early promise and his attacking stats are trending in the wrong direction: two goals and four assists in the regular season in 2019, no goals and three assists in 2020 and just one goal last year.
With the aforementioned injury crisis at winger in 2021, Diaz had an opportunity to show some quality with real minutes available, but he just didn’t convince. He is one of the fastest players on the roster at a sprint but his decision-making in the final third leaves a lot to be desired. The Crew triggered a one-year extension on his contract this offseason, showing the team still believes the player has something to give.
Matan played just under 800 minutes last year and while he showed promise, he neither scored nor assisted in that time. He gets the benefit of the doubt for a couple of reasons. First being his age (22) and the second being the fact he was new to MLS last season, a year in which his family could not travel to the United States due to COVID protocols.
Matan is not the first young import to struggle in his first year in MLS. And while the Romanian likely won’t be a regular starter this season he should get significant minutes coming off the bench to showcase his talent. Matan is still one for the future and if he can become more potent in front of goal then the Crew has a real weapon.