Over the first eight games of the Columbus Crew’s 2023 season, it became clear what first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy wants from his team. What is less apparent is what that looks like with a full complement of players.
It would be hard to argue that Nancy has had what most would say is his first-choice lineup available for a match yet this season. Goalkeeper Eloy Room missed Week 1 while working to get his green card and then left wing back Will Sands missed two games with an injury. Room, center back Milos Degenek and attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan each missed a game due to international duty and Room and striker Cucho Hernandez have both missed time with knee issues.
This does not include players such as winger Luis Diaz (back), center back Josh Williams (ankle) or midfielder Kevin Molino (knee) who have all missed multiple games with injuries and, because of that, their place in the team remains unclear.
But, barring any unforeseen additions to the availability report, the Black & Gold could be at full strength soon.
Room, who last played for Columbus in the 2-1 loss at the New York Red Bulls in mid-March, suffered a knee injury shortly after coming back from international duty with Curaçao. He has missed the last three games – four total if you include the international absence – but is on his way back.
“He trained yesterday normally,” Nancy said of Room on Wednesday. “So he should be okay.”
In Room’s absence, second-year professional Patrick Schulte has stepped in and played admirably in goal for the Crew. Schulte was the Black & Gold’s first-round SuperDraft pick in 2022 and was named the MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year last season, helping Crew 2 win the reserve league’s first championship.
Room started every game of the 2022 season for the first team and managed nine shutouts, tied for fifth-best in MLS. He is one of the league’s highest-paid goalkeepers, a former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year finalist and established himself as the starter for Columbus following the departure of Zack Steffen to Manchester City in the summer of 2019.
Schulte’s play in his absence, which also includes the Week 1 match against the Philadelphia Union, has created a potential goalkeeper controversy going forward. The second-year pro has helped the Crew to a 3-1-1 record and, since allowing four in his MLS debut, only conceded two goals in the last four matches.
Nancy, who responded, “Like every team, every player, we’ll see,” when asked if Room will regain his starting spot over Schulte with his return to fitness, will have a decision to make in terms of who to start in goal.
Leading CF Montreal last season, Nancy played two goalkeepers with Sebastian Breza starting 23 games and James Pantemis starting the other 11. This hasn’t been the way Nancy had regularly handled his goalkeepers but saw an opportunity with two players that both earned the right to play.
“I would say that when I started my career as a coach, for me it was clear that I like to clarify to the goalkeeper, first, second and third,” Nancy explained. “But I lived a situation last year in Montreal where I felt with my staff that it was better to make a rotation. And it worked. So now I don’t know.”
Perhaps a similar approach will be used with Room and Schulte.
Hernandez should also be back soon. The Designated Player missed the game against the Red Bulls last month with what was described as “knee soreness” late in the training week. He was then ruled out for multiple weeks but is working his way back to full fitness.
“He trained yesterday a full practice,” Nancy said of Hernandez on Wednesday. “So today, the idea is to have a progression. So we have a plan for him to come back. So we’re going to sit with him and explain what we want in terms of minutes and in terms of the way he trains and how many minutes he’s going to train with us collectively or individually. So hopefully, if everything’s okay, he should be available soon.”
As the Black & Gold’s most expensive player, the situation is a bit more cut and dry as to what happens when Hernandez is healthy again. While Columbus won’t push him back quicker than he needs to be, the striker will be in the starting lineup nearly every game when healthy.
But without Hernandez, the Crew has scored 14 goals in the last five matches and gone 3-1-1 over that stretch. This is to say that the Black & Gold have found other ways to score goals with Hernandez out and will want to continue what has been successful once the DP returns.
In his three games played this year, Hernandez is yet to score and has one assist. But the club’s highest-signed player did light MLS on fire upon making his debut last season, scoring eight goals in his first eight games before finishing the year with nine.
So far this season, Hernandez has played as a lone mobile striker, just ahead of attacking midfielders Zelarayan and Matan. Since Hernandez’s injury, veteran Christian Ramirez has shown himself capable in Nancy’s system, scoring three goals in his first four starts for Columbus after signing with the team this offseason. It’s possible he, or the young Jacen Russell-Rowe, could play alongside Hernandez in a two-striker system, something Nancy did at times in Montreal, when all players are healthy.
The Crew is off to a good start to the 2023 season, sitting on 14 points and fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and Nancy’s tactical flexibility has been a reason the Black & Gold have been able to navigate missing key players. Soon, however, fans should get to see what a full-strength Columbus side looks like and Nancy will have to make decisions on what that full-strength team looks like.
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