As expected, Columbus Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter did not reveal his top choice to replace the suspended Federico Higuain for Saturday’s match against Toronto FC.
The Crew boss did candidly speak though about the options he has at his disposal—and there are a lot of them.
“If you think about guys that can play centrally, Justin [Meram] we think can play there, Bernardo [Anor] can probably play there,” said Berhalter. “We could go with two forwards and play Dom [Oduro] and Jairo [Arrieta]. We could go with Ben Speas … We could go with Daniel Paladini, he’s more of a midfielder. There are probably seven or eight different combinations.”
Berhalter reiterated that there is no one-for-one replacement for the man who leads MLS in chances created.
“Whoever plays there, we’re not going to ask them to do any more than what they’re capable of doing. We’re not going to ask them to be Federico, we’re going to ask them to be themselves and play their game. The person that we choose, we’ll choose because we think their game can help us perform.”
As an attacking unit, the Crew knows it needs to collectively step up in the absence of Higuain, a message that was universally expressed this week.
“It’s hard to replace the MVP of the team right now, and you could put him up as the MVP of the League with how he’s playing,” said Ethan Finlay. “We’ll do our best. I think we have some good guys who have the ability to come in there and find some of those passes … We have a lot of choices, and we’ll try some things throughout the week and see what happens.”
“Everyone’s going to have to do a little bit more without him being there,” added Justin Meram. “Someone’s going to have to step up and do something magical, since that’s what he brings to this team. We’re confident.”
If the Black & Gold were to replace Higuain with a straight swap in keeping their formation, Ben Speas could be an option to start after making the 18 for the first time last week. The Homegrown Player, however, stressed that he was treating this week of training no differently than normal.
“I’m not going to be [Higuain], he’s not going to be me,” said Speas. “I’ll just play my game and do what I know how to do. That’s all I can do, and I think that’s all the coaches would ask as well … I just have to go in there if called upon, work hard and play my game.”
Berhalter could also opt to play a two-forward formation, with Dominic Oduro starting alongside Jairo Arrieta, an idea that Oduro said he would be ready for even though it would change the overall look of the Crew.
“If it’s a partnership, I think I’ll be more of a threat trying to get behind with Jairo trying to hold the ball. He has to keep the ball, and I have to be the guy always looking for that channel in behind. That’s how I see it going if we decide to go that way,” said the Ghanaian.
The options surely make Columbus a difficult side to prepare for this weekend, and Berhalter believes that the lineup possibilities are a good problem to have.
“It’s not a headache," said Berhalter. "The best part of it is that you have guys who believe they can come in and do the job, and that’s what’s important to me.
"When you look at Eric Gehrig, Tyson Wahl, Chad Barson, Ethan Finlay, guys who weren’t necessarily starters in the beginning—they come in, we win and they’ve been scoring and doing well, they believe they can do it, and we believe they can do it. I think that combination is good.”