Homegrown defender Alex Crognale has loomed large over Columbus Crew SC’s three-game winning streak. Then again, barring a career change to basketball, the 6-foot-5-inch Crognale looms large over everything.
Still, the impact the 22-year-old Gahanna native has had on the season’s early going has been most impressive. Some might call it unexpected. But maybe not. Alex Crognale has done this before.
It’s not like I’ve known Alex Crognale since he was knee-high. In fact, he was already more than me-high during our interactions five summers ago, during the transition between his junior and senior years at Gahanna Lincoln High School. Throughout 2012, I spent a lot of time with the Academy, planning an enormous series of articles at year’s end. I went to practice sessions, tons of games, and accompanied the Under-16 and Under-18 teams on a road trip to Chicago. That series of articles never happened. After Kirk Urso passed away, I threw myself into the project that would become Kirk Urso: Forever Massive. Regrettably, but understandably, the academy stuff fell to the wayside.
But the raw material still exists.
Crognale signed a Homegrown Player contract with Crew SC on December 20, 2016. He made his MLS debut on March 18, 2017, starting and going all 90 minutes in a 2-0 victory at D.C. United. I’m always happy to see any player make his MLS debut for Columbus, but Crognale’s debut harkened back to one of his achievements when the dream was still very much a dream.
During his final high school summer, Crognale made four appearances with Crew SC’s reserve team back when the MLS Reserve League still existed. Columbus was the defending champion, and in the final game of the 2012 reserve campaign, in late October, the Black & Gold needed a victory at D.C. United to secure a repeat. As Crognale did a token warm-up with the first team before the Saturday night game at RFK Stadium, he received an unexpected bit of news regarding the next day’s reserve match.
“They told me, ‘We need players. You're starting tomorrow,’” Crognale said when we spoke later that week. “I was thinking, ‘Oh (crap), I'd better come to play.’ I told my parents and they were freaking out. It was a big deal.”
Despite the stakes, Crognale was calm. With three prior substitute appearances totaling 40 minutes, his earlier experiences with the reserve team had prepared him for task.
“I actually wasn't that nervous, just surprised,” he said back then. “The first and second reserve games I played in, I was more nervous going out there, but now I am used to playing with the guys in practice and stuff, so it wasn't that bad.”
Paired with center back Eric Gehrig, a second-year professional with first team experience, Crognale went 90 minutes and helped the reserves achieve a 2-0 victory, clinching their second consecutive reserve league title.
“He did a great job,” Gehrig told me in 2012, before saying things that would sound awfully familiar in 2017. “He won a lot of headers and kept it simple on the ground, which is what you want to do anyways as a center back, especially as a young player like that. I'm sure he was a little nervous, but it didn't seem like it. He stepped in to a very important game for us. There was a lot of pressure for us to win that game, and he didn't miss a beat. We're proud of him. He just seemed like a regular one of the guys out there.”
Even first team head coach Robert Warzycha couldn’t help but be impressed.
“He dominated in the air, and I think he played very simple,” Warzycha said afterward. “He didn't overdo it. Alex has that good sense on the field, which is why he is going to a program like (the University of) Maryland.”
After a stellar career at Maryland, Crognale made his official Crew SC debut in — amazingly enough — a 2-0 win at D.C. United. Crognale displayed that same aerial dominance and calm demeanor, even throwing in some perfectly-played 1-on-1 defending for good measure. It was Deja Crew all over again.
Well, for me at least.
“I hadn’t thought about the reserve match being there,” said Crognale, who has infinitely more career development milestones rattling around in his brain than I do. “But that is where I started with the reserves, so to make my debut with the first team there is pretty cool.”
Not only did Crognale make his debut, but we earned a spot on the MLS Team of the Week for his effort.
“Team of the Week and all that other stuff just topped it off,” Crognale said. “That was all unexpected. I thought it was a good performance by the whole team. Gregg asked us to try the three-back formation that we had been working on in preseason, but trying it in a game is different. The fact that we were able to pull it off and play a great game in D.C. is a testament to (Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach) Gregg (Berhalter) and the team. We are able to vary it up and still be effective.”
The second milestone in Crognale’s young career was his home debut on March 25 versus Portland. With the score tied at 2-2 in the 73rd minute, Berhalter summoned Crognale to sub in for an injured Jonathan Mensah.
“They were screaming my name and I jumped up and was like, ‘Oh crap, it’s me!’ I sprinted straight to Gregg and got the final thoughts from the assistant coaches and then my adrenaline was pumping and I was ready to go.”
Growing up a Crew SC fan, Crognale had spent many nights at MAPFRE Stadium cheering on the Black & Gold. For the first time, he ran onto that same field as an official Crew SC player. He helped keep Portland off the board and was the first player to congratulate Niko Hansen when the fellow rookie scored the game-winning goal in the 84th minute. Crognale walked off his home field for the first time as winner.
As a fellow Homegrown Player, Wil Trapp, can attest to what that home debut is like.
“The jitters are there,” Trapp said. “Your family’s here, and it’s a different experience, but you would never know it by how Alex is playing and his emotionless face. He’s strong, he works hard, and he’s got a good attitude. It’s a tough game to come into. (Portland striker Fanendo) Adi is a handful, but Alex is a big boy and he can handle it. Last week, he was excellent, and then this week, it was a tough game that required him to perform and he got the job done again.”
Crognale was the last player off the field that night. There were many hugs and photographs to be taken with his proud and happy family.
“The home debut is special,” Crognale said afterward. “My family was here, so to see them smiling after the game was special.”
This past Saturday, Crognale achieved his third milestone in as many weeks. This time, it was his first home start. Once again, Crognale was unruffled in a 2-0 victory.
“Alex’s positioning was, I think, excellent,” said Berhalter. “That’s what I’m most happy with today. I don’t think he was out of position once. Then when he’s in position, his ability to win the duels was crucial.”
Berhalter sent Crognale a text the night before the game, telling him he was ready for the assignment.
“It’s great to have a coach that’s confident in you,” Crognale said. “For him to send that message and to tell me I’m ready, and to be confident, and he said be an animal. You know, I thought I was able to do that today. We were able to get a shutout and win.”
The shutout came against a potent Orlando attack, featuring gargantuan goal-scoring machine Cyle Larin. Dealing with Adi (6-foot-4) and then Larin (6-foot-2) in back to back weeks, that would sure seem to help a young player feel at ease, surviving such tests against mammoth men who can light up the scoreboard on a moment’s notice.
“It’s great to see players of that stature,” Crognale said. “Those are big, strong guys, so to see that dynamic, I feel comfortable playing against a big striker now. And I guess next time we’ll see when we face a smaller, craftier guy, it will be a different type of game for me.”
“It’s been amazing,” Trapp said. “In his two starts, he’s got two shutouts, and he’s been going against some tough strikers. Last week it was Adi, and this week it was 90 minutes against Cyle Larin. He’s going to continue to grow and progress in this league.”
Crew SC has yet to yield a goal with Crognale on the field. A reporter asked how long that streak could last.
“I don’t know if I have an answer for that, man,” Crognale said. “As long as we can. As long as we keep playing well.”
I’m always happy whenever a rookie sees the field for the first time and gets to realize his dream of becoming a professional player. With Crognale, it’s a little bit different, because I’ve had a few firsthand glimpses of the journey. I don’t know about most rookies until they are already on the team and at the doorstep of seeing the field.
Seeing Crognale’s success, it’s fun to think of the kid I met five summers ago. I am not nearly astute enough to project a 17-year-old to be a successful professional player down the line, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s neat to reflect on some of the traits that were evident back then and have carried forward to today. He was obviously a physically dominant player as a teen. (He was already 6’5” back then, but has since added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame.) He was always in the right place. He was always calm in the back.
He was studious about the game. I remember on the bus ride home from Chicago, instead of goofing around with his teammates in the back of the bus, he joined his mom, Karen, who worked for the Academy at the time, in the front row and watched the broadcast of a Maryland soccer game on her laptop computer. He was just a couple months away from graduating high school mid-year and leaving for early enrollment at Maryland to get a jump on his college career. He intently watched the Terps play soccer to prepare for the next level.
He wasn’t afraid to put in the work. Crew SC Strength and Conditioning Coach Brook Hamilton spent several hours a week aiding in Crognale’s physical development before he left for Maryland—footwork, nutrition, change of direction, muscle mass—and found him to be a curious and diligent pupil.
“Alex is the easiest kind of athlete to work with,” Hamilton told me back then. “We have good conversations. He’s working hard and pushing every day.”
He was competitive. And he already knew which teams to hate. After the U18s lost to the Chicago Fire’s U18s, he said, “It’s pretty frustrating because we expect to come out and win games. It’s just little mistakes that we need to fix. There are good moments we can take from the games, but it pretty much needs to be better from everyone out there, myself included. It’s never fun losing to the Fire.”
And, above all else, Crognale aimed high. It was a distant goal at the time, but he wanted to play for his hometown team. Although focused on his upcoming college career at Maryland, he said, “It’s definitely something I’ve thought about. I would love to have the opportunity to play for (Crew SC) someday.”
As a teenager, Crognale watched Federico Higuain score two free kick goals in one game, then got to share the same locker room as Pipa during a reserve call-up. In 2012, Crognale described that first Pipa encounter as a “whoa” moment.
Five years later, Crognale’s on the same MAPFRE Stadium field, celebrating Black & Gold victories with Higuain.
Given how unflappable Crognale has been on the field as a professional, this time around, it appears likely to be a bigger “whoa” moment for me than for him.