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Depth has become a good problem for the Crew at winger

Head coach Caleb Porter has a winger situation that he’s not had since joining Columbus in 2019.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Inter Miami CF Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Columbus Crew hired head coach Caleb Porter, after successful years with the Portland Timbers, the one area of the field that’s seen the most change is the wingers. Porter and the Black & Gold have struggled over the years to find consistency at the role, with now-fullback Pedro Santos being the only mainstay at the position. Now, with the Timbers about to enter Field for a Sunday matchup, wingers are still a position up in the air, but this time because the options are plentiful.

Although the Crew came out of Tuesday’s match at Inter Miami on the wrong side of the scoreline, it wasn’t because of the players on the wings. Derrick Etienne Jr., who’s playing the best soccer of his career in 2022, didn’t get on the scoresheet but played well. On the right side was Kevin Molino. The Trinidadian midfielder, who Columbus signed prior to the 2021 season, tore his ACL late last season and never really showed the flashes from his time with Orlando City SC and Minnesota United. Tuesday was a different story.

“Kevin had a great game,” said Porter this week. “And I told him that he looks like the Kevin Molino that we intended to sign.”

Molino filled in for winger Luis Díaz, who missed the match due to a red card sustained in Columbus’ disappointing 2-2 draw against CF Montréal. In his 100th MLS regular season start, Molino almost looked like a No. 10 at times, moving from wide into the middle of the field and facilitating ball movement.

In the 42nd minute, with the Crew down a goal and the defense closing in on Molino, the winger sent a perfectly timed pass to fullback Steven Moreira, who sent a cross into forward Cucho Hernández to head the ball in the goal, leveling the match 1-1 before halftime. It also earned Molino an assist.

“I had a rocky start here, a lot of injuries,” said Molino. “I know I’m finding myself and getting that chemistry with the guys. It’s important that I get to play with the guys more and understand them more so we can be on the same page. I think I’m getting there and we just need to continue.”

It’s clear that the understanding is growing, with Molino beginning to find more starts in this Columbus side. Molino started in the Hell is Real Derby but Tuesday is beginning to show his capabilities.

A teammate that’s shown his capabilities time and time again over the years replaced Molino on Tuesday, when Santos entered the game in at his old winger role. Rookie fullback Will Sands, who’s proven his defensive chops since Santos went down with an injury against Atlanta United on Aug. 21, stayed in with Santos picking up where he left off in 2021.

“It was good, it felt very good because I always want to play and be out with my teammates,” said Santos about his return after over three weeks out due to injury. “From the stands, it’s hard for me to watch.”

Santos entered at a time when the match was still tied, showing that Porter wanted another offensive-minded player in Molino’s place to push for the victory. Although the Black & Gold didn’t capitalize, Santos got the team close to leveling after Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain put the home side ahead.

It’s unclear if Santos will return to that position, with Porter saying on Friday that a specific team needs to be put out if Sands continues to start. That’s likely due to Sands still needing time to grow on the offensive side of the ball from the fullback position. If Sands does keep that position though, Santos brings a Columbus career of 23 goals and 32 assists, mostly on the right winger position.

For Santos, the answer is easy on where to play him on the team sheet, but there is one spot with a higher level of comfort.

“I don’t have a preference,” said Santos. “When I play, I always play to help the team, no matter which position that I play. Obviously playing on the wing, it’s still the position that I know better. But I think that I’m doing very well at left back so I feel confident in both positions and I will do my best and whatever position that I play.”

Back to the problem the Crew has at winger. There are five options to fill two important positions in Porter’s 4-2-3-1 formation. For months, really since Hernández joined the club against the Chicago Fire on July 9, the wingers had rare continuity with Etienne and Díaz starting on the left and right respectively. Outside of Molino stepping in for Etienne against FC Cincinnati and Díaz’s suspension, the two have started every match of the last 10 and are both having career seasons.

Etienne has scored six goals and five assists in 2022, one over his best goalscoring total and tied for his best year of assists. For Díaz, who brought his blazing speed to the Black & Gold in 2019, had a quiet two seasons before the Hernández move brought him to life, with six assists and a goal since the Colombian’s edition.

The fifth option not yet mentioned is Yaw Yeboah, who was finally coming into form in his first MLS season before sustaining an injury in Atlanta on May 28. After that injury, Yeboah hasn’t sniffed a start in Porter’s 11, instead coming in for substitute minutes and almost tying the match on Tuesday in the final minutes but ringing a shot off the post.

Regardless of who earns the nod, the Crew needs a pair that can not only score, but put in shifts that show a Black & Gold side that wants to be in the MLS Cup playoffs. The current problem at hand creates more competition in the locker room. Now supporters hope to see the same competition on the field.