Before Saturday afternoon, the last time Vito Wormgoor appeared for Columbus Crew SC lasted only 17 minutes – five of which were spent being evaluated and eventually stretchered off the field.
A dozen minutes into the MLS is Back Tournament opener against FC Cincinnati last July, Wormgoor heard a pop and knew something was wrong. He broke his ankle.
So, his addition to the Crew's starting lineup was a welcoming sight on Saturday as he started and played an hour in the scoreless draw against CF Montréal at Drive Pink Stadium.
“It felt good to be back,” Wormgoor said of his first game in 10 months. “It was hard, it was a long time, but I’m excited to feel that feeling in front of a game – to work towards a real match that matters. That feeling, I missed, of course, (a lot). It was very exciting for me.”
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In his 2021 debut, the center back completed every pass he attempted (28) and tied a team-high with four clearances. He also gained possession twice, made one interception and produced one block.
For a defender who hasn’t played a competitive match in 10 months, the performance was a promising start toward a full recovery as he helped Columbus earn its second league clean sheet in as many games.
“I thought he actually put in a pretty good shift (in his) first time playing – starting – major minutes in nearly a year,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the draw. “I thought it was a good first step for him. He needs to get back into form, but I thought we played pretty well.”
Wormgoor’s reemergence in the first team presents a nice problem to have and reiterates why Columbus has one of the league’s top rosters.
On a day when captain Jonathan Mensah was unavailable with an injury, Wormgoor and Homegrown defender Aboubacar Keita stepped in and kept the club’s defensive dominance in league play.
Although Wormgoor has only made three appearances for the Crew since he joined ahead of the 2020 season, he was signed to play a significant role alongside Mensah. While that can still happen in the coming months, the team’s depth quality allows players to interchange without impacting the backline against opposing teams.
Josh Williams, who replaced Wormgoor against Montréal in the 60th minute, delivered another strong performance as he won three of his duels. Williams replaced Wormgoor in 2020 and helped Columbus win its second MLS Cup.
If the Black & Gold and continue rotating players across its backline without impacting the quality of play, it’ll create massive challenges for opponents to break down the Crew. Of course, even getting past the defense is just the first obstacle when opponents need to get past goalkeeper Eloy Room, who’s had a strong start to 2021.
“We have a good group of defenders over there and I think we need to push each other every day in training and games and we need to raise the level and be sure that the level is staying on a certain level,” Wormgoor said about the center back depth. “We cannot drop because otherwise other (players are) standing there to take over.
“For example, Josh took over and he did a perfect job (last year), so now it’s on me to show that I can raise that level again. I think we have a good group of defenders over there in our back. We also have a very good goalie who’s talking a lot with us and puts us in our place when we need to be there. I think we have a good triangle always on the pitch.”
The center back rotation could prove invaluable this season, but especially in the next two weeks. Beginning with the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal against CF Monterey last Wednesday, Columbus has six games in 19 days. The next match is in Monterey on Wednesday.
Porter called this stretch of the season the club’s most difficult in 2021. Of course, if the Crew beat Rayados and advance to the semifinals, that will add at least two more matches to the calendar.
With games condensed in a tight window, depth will be crucial for Crew SC to manage and compete in two competitions; by having interchangeable players at center back, that will play a key role in load management while reminding opponents why the reigning MLS Cup champions have a stronger roster than a year ago.