In 2019, Luis Díaz was a 20-year-old winger with unmatched speed. Díaz joined a Columbus Crew side that wasn’t supposed to exist. It was the first season after the Crew was saved and remained in Columbus, but on the field, there was a lot more needing to be rescued.
It was head coach Caleb Porter’s first season in charge of the Black & Gold and it was a campaign of transition, to put it lightly. Starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen left for English Premier League side Manchester City.
In MLS, Columbus lost a pair of starters to season-ending injuries. Playmaker Frederico Higuain was hurt after 14 matches and fullback Milton Valenzuela never saw the field, suffering an ACL tear. This put winger Pedro Santos in the No. 10 role for much of the season.
The Crew ended the season in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
Díaz made his first appearance for Columbus on July 17 after being acquired earlier that month. As a substitute, Díaz sent in the match-tying cross to former Black & Gold forward Romario Williams for the 2-2 draw against the Chicago Fire. It was a 90th minute goal, avoiding the Crew’s 15th loss of the season at that time.
That draw ended a five-match losing streak and started a run of performance that carried Columbus into 2020. Also adding goalkeeper Eloy Room that summer, the Black & Gold’s final 13 matches of 2019 saw the team go 5-6-2. Not bad for a side that started the first 21 matches of the season 5-2-14.
In 13 matches in a new league, Díaz scored two goals and added four assists. Memorably, Díaz sent a lot of FC Cincinnati supporters home early when he fired from the side of the post at a tough angle in the last minute of first half stoppage time.
Fast forward to 2022 and Díaz still has his pace, but in the two seasons that followed his introduction, the Costa Rican had only one goal and three assists. Granted, two of those assists were big; the first in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinal and second in the 2020 MLS Cup Final, but the one goal in two seasons felt like expectations not met.
As a result of 2021, where Columbus wingers only scored four goals in the run of play, the front office made changes. The Crew brought in winger Yaw Yeboah this offseason to start on the right. Derrick Etienne Jr. won the job on the left wing in the preseason and hasn’t looked back. This left Díaz in a position not known all that often in his time in Black & Gold – a bench player.
Porter said in the preseason that the Black & Gold will have competition for starting positions. Specifically, the group of wingers knew that if they didn’t perform, they wouldn’t play.
Díaz could have been upset and moped after his benching, but he didn’t. The Costa Rican has come off the bench for three appearances in 2022, has one goal and was a crucial player in the last two Crew matches.
Against Toronto FC two weeks ago, it was Díaz off the bench who used his pace to open space for his teammates on the field. In Sunday’s 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls, Díaz showed maturation in stoppage time. After Díaz received the ball outside of the penalty area, the winger likely would have made the wrong decision.
Instead, Díaz made the right play, receiving a pass from forward Gyasi Zardes before drawing in two defenders, waiting for the right moment and playing a perfectly-timed pass down the sideline to charging fullback Steven Moreira. Moreira sent a low cross into the penalty area that midfielder Darlington Nagbe put away.
On Wednesday, Díaz made another surprising move. With Crew’s communication manager Carlos Mojica translating, Díaz responded in English.
It was his first time doing a press conference outside of his native tongue. Díaz struggled to say some things and asked for a little translation help from time to time, but it’s an off-field example that’s matching his on-field performance. What was his answer when asked about his 2022 growth?
“Play well and help for the teammates,” said Díaz.
Speaking in English in a press conference may not seem like much, but it does to teammate Artur, who came to the Crew from Brazil at 19 and also had to learn English.
“If I’m not wrong, he did the interview in English?” asked Artur. “I think that shows a little bit of the mentality starting to change and adapting a little bit better, and I think that he wants to help us and like of course help him”
Artur is a leader of the Black & Gold, even if he doesn’t wear the captain’s armband. He knows the feeling, having jumped into a press conference without knowing English two months into his time with Columbus.
It isn’t just speaking with the media that shows a player is changing for the better. Far from it. There’s an area that supporters don’t see that’s growing.
“He’s got a real positive attitude,” said Porter. “His training approach has been better. Some guys like training a little more than others and I think he’s a guy that’s not always shown up to training.”
For now, Díaz is going to remain in his substitute role. His ability to get behind defenders and stretch the field is extrapolated at parts of the match where opponents have tired legs.
As supporters know though, injuries and dips in form happen. If Díaz continues this trajectory of contributing on the field and growing in training, it creates conversations and battles for positions. His teammates know this too.
“His pace is amazing and something you can’t teach,” said Etienne after the 2-1 victory against Toronto. “If he continues to play like that, he’ll get himself double-digit goals and assists easy.”
There aren’t many within the Crew that would dislike that.