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The Crew’s improved winger play is the final offseason box to check

Columbus has searched for a permanent answer to who will take charge of both winger positions and 2022 could provide an answer.

SOCCER: JUN 23 MLS - Columbus Crew at Philadelphia Union Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the end of each Columbus Crew season, president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko meets with head coach Caleb Porter to discuss what needs to be done to improve the team. While these two get together consistently throughout the season, the postseason meeting is a debrief, identifying lingering issues and to see how they can be corrected.

After the Black & Gold’s 2020 MLS Cup Final victory, reinforcing an already strong team was the goal. When Columbus’ 2021 fizzled out without securing a spot in the 2021 MLS Cup playoffs, the focus landed on three areas: getting younger, improving flexibility and increasing winger production.

The first was tackled through the transfer market. The Crew didn’t re-sign veterans like forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, center back Vito Wormgoor or fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis. Instead, the Black & Gold brought in 24-year-old winger Yaw Yeboah, 26-year-old midfielder James Igbekeme, 27-year-old Miloš Degenek and a pair of rookies out of Georgetown University. Both 21 year olds Sean Zawadzki and Will Sands cut years off the average age of the Columbus roster.

Those additions also give the Crew more flexibility. After all, the Black & Gold weren’t making decisions simply looking at the date of birth on the scouting report. Degenek, and veteran signing Jalil Anibaba, each gives Porter more depth at the position. Igbekeme’s pace and allusiveness in the midfield mean that defenses get a different look than the usual Darlington Nagbe and Artur or Marlon Hairston pairing.

That final focus, improving winger production, was the most specific goal set out by Columbus’ staff. In 2021, the Crew only scored four of the team’s 46 goals from a winger during the run of play. Injuries were of course part of the problem. The Black & Gold’s most consistent winger over the past few seasons, Pedro Santos, moved to fullback for 14 of his 2021 starts because Afful and former Columbus fullback Milton Valenzuela missed time.

This roster shift meant that the Crew wasn’t getting the same offensive looks. The Black & Gold weren’t able to overlap fullbacks over wingers, like how Santos and Afful ran the right side of the offensive third for years. Because of this, Columbus was less productive offensively.

“We found that we crossed a little bit too often from deeper positions,” said Bezbatchenko last week. “We weren’t necessarily getting to the end line or getting into the half spaces, just inside the box, to have the cutback that Caleb really harps on during training. And we feel like we’re better balanced to get in those positions.”

In 2022, Columbus will have that overlap on the right side through Yeboah and 2021 2021 midseason signing Steven Moreira. It will take some time for the two to get on the same page, especially with Yeboah not having a full preseason with the Crew. Once they do, the Black & Gold can get deeper down the sideline. This creates positives for the offense.

With more presence deeper down the flank, other players will be open. Forwards Gyasi Zardes or Miguel Berry then have more time to find space in the 18-yard box. Also, when attention gets drawn to the sideline, an offensive creator like Lucas Zelarayan receives the ball without having to fight off double or triple teams. With more room to move, Zelarayan can add more to his already highlight-reel-filled two years in Columbus.

What about the other winger position? That question is what the Crew have tried to answer over the past three seasons, especially when Santos isn’t available on the wings. Given he is expected to replace Valenzuela as the starting left back, the Black & Gold will need other options to emerge.

In 2019, Columbus thought the team had an answer when they acquired Luis Diaz. In 13 appearances, Diaz scored twice and assisted on three goals. Since then, Diaz has scored just once and has three assists in 30 appearances over two seasons.

Over the past two years, the Crew acquired Derrick Etienne Jr., Kevin Molino and Alexandru Matan to try and fill the void. While each has had positive moments on the field, none of these players has taken control of the position. Etienne’s provided the most offensive productivity (two goals and six assists in two seasons), Molino is out after suffering the third ACL tear in his career and Matan’s one season brought flashes of the future but not a single goal or assist to his name.

Speaking last week, Porter doesn’t see the competition on the wings as being for a single spot. Instead, each player gives the Black & Gold different looks to throw at opponents.

“Derek’s (Etienne) a very hard-working player, very good pressing player,” said Porter. “Luis Diaz is obviously a stretching guy, very pacey. Matan’s different in that he probably has a little bit more precision and technical ability in around the final third.”

For each positive, Porter is realistic with where the player lacks. In both Etienne and Diaz, decision making in the final third needs improvement. Diaz’s lack of goal-scoring production isn’t from a lack of trying. In 2021, Diaz had the third-most shots and shots on target on the Crew with 31 total and 13 on frame.

Matan is the newest of the three, joining the Black & Gold in 2021. There’s usually an adjustment period for new players to Major League Soccer and Matan had another layer of difficulty, leaving the familiarity of Europe for the first time during a global pandemic. To Porter, Matan lacks in the dynamic play of players like Etienne or Diaz. After a year in MLS, and hopefully more family around, Matan’s added comfort in America could pay dividends on the field.

Whoever does get the nod is likely to combine with Santos down the left, hoping to provide the same flexibility Columbus anticipates with the addition of Yeboah on the right.

Porter has a difficult decision to make, but that’s something he relishes. The Crew’s manager would rather make choices based on the field than the injury report. Regardless of his decision, players need to be prepared.

“I think every guy on this team knows they have to train well and play well or they may not get a job on the weekend,” said Porter.

The Black & Gold have checked off two of their list of goals they want to achieve going into the 2022 MLS season. It might take some time to see if the final one gets checked.