An injury-plagued season meant a lot of playing time up-and-down Crew SC's roster, and in some circumstances, that meant going with younger options on the depth chart.
Labeled as bright spots, regular appearances from players like Luis Argudo and Aboubacar Keita were one of the positive takeaways from a down year. In addition to those two, there were the likes of Artur, who started 28 of 30 games played, as well as late addition Luis Diaz, who started nine of 13 games.
"One of the bright spots, obviously, with injuries is that you have the opportunity to play young talent," said President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. "So someone like Aboubacar Keita came in and did as well as we ever could have expected for someone who’s put in that situation. It shows you that there’s a benefit to player development and investing in your academy and that’s something that we also want to do moving forward."
Along with Keita, Argudo, Artur, and Diaz, throw in soon-to-be returnee Milton Valenzuela and newcomer Chris Cadden into the 2020 mix, and that's six players who have earned regular minutes at some point throughout the last two seasons for their respective teams.
That said, Head Coach Caleb Porter clarified that playing younger players, Academy players especially, is always a calculated decision.
"I believe in young players, but I don’t believe in playing young players just to play them," Porter said. "I believe in signing guys that are good enough and playing guys that have earned it, because at the end of the day my job is to win games and whether it’s a 32-year-old or a 19-year-old, at the end of the day if I am not winning games with the 19-year-old, no one is going to give me a free pass."
Prior to his time here, Porter noted how he's proven to give young guys chances, like Portland Timbers striker Jeremy Ebobisse, who recently earned a call-up to the U.S. Men's National Team, and that he wants to see young players with something to prove.
"Having some young guys in there that are mobile and hungry and have something to prove, have things to win, have a little chip on their shoulder, I think that’s important," Porter said.
Though there is a balancing element to it as well.
"You have too many of those guys though, now you don’t have enough calm and presence and experience. You have to have a blend and I’ve always had that with my teams."
Of the 19 players on Columbus Crew SC's current roster, seven are 23 or younger. Diaz, Artur, and Keita each started more than half of the games they played, while Argudo was named a starter in 10 of 21 matches played.
Notably, the Crew went unbeaten in seven of eight with Keita as a starter, and while Keita's signing is much different than, say, Diaz's (a Young Designated Player), the idea in having that youthfulness is to ensure depth, hunger, and a continuous pipeline of talent.
"So I think having young guys in the pipeline is important, mostly for a succession plan, and also because having a young player to mold and a young guy that’s able to cover ground. This is a game where you have to run. You have to be able to run in this game. There are no luxury guys anymore…I prefer to have a team that’s all mobile."
In terms of Academy players, Porter commented that there are some solid players coming down the pike, but that timing is a big factor.
"We have some good ones in the pipeline. It’s just figuring out the right time and I think the other thing is we don’t want to sign a guy that’s going to be blocked," he said.
"So it’s important we sign a guy who has a clear pathway, and whether he’s in the one, two, or three, we want to sign a guy who is going to be in a position that’s at least the three, because again, if we sign a young guy that looks great to everybody, but then if he never plays...it does no good."