Newcomers stepping up, helping Crew SC bench depth

Columbus Crew SC fans might not have realized just how much their team relied on Artur until they couldn't rely on him anymore.

The 21-year-old Brazilian is not the type who racks up impressive stats, but he had become a mainstay of Coach Gregg Berhalter's lineup since joining the Crew on loan from Sao Paulo FC — the type of midfielder who holds a team together with raw skill and box-to-box hustle. When he broke his wrist less than a minute into Saturday's 2-0 loss at New York Red Bulls, Columbus didn't have a suitable replacement for him. (Sorry, Mohammed Abu.)

Unfortunately for Crew SC, Artur will miss the three-game homestand that begins this Saturday against New York City FC, so they'll have to figure something out. The silver lining: Artur's absence highlights what a positive addition he's been.

He's not alone. Niko Hansen, a 22-year-old winger drafted from the University of New Mexico, worked his way into a starting role with energetic, creative flank play. He scored the game-winner against Portland in his MLS debut and logged a gorgeous assist versus Toronto in his first start. For now, Berhalter seems convinced Hansen offers something Ethan Finlay can't.

Hansen's fellow rookie Alex Crognale, a 22-year-old Homegrown Player from Gahanna, has been similarly impressive stepping into the centerback role intended for Designated Player signee Jonathan Mensah. With Mensah unavailable at DC United, Crognale impressed in his first start, winning Man of the Match honors in a fan vote. Now that Mensah is back to full health, Crognale continues to start.

And then there's Zack Steffen, the 22-year-old goalkeeper acquired last summer from Germany's SC Freiburg II. He's made some rookie mistakes, most notably letting a saveable shot cascade off his body and into net at Chicago. But overall his athletic, intuitive play suggests he could evolve into a franchise goalie someday.

The immediate effect of so many young players stepping up has been a depth that was sorely lacking in 2016. By supplanting the likes of Finlay (a former MLS All-Star) and Mensah (a veteran of two World Cups) in the starting lineup, these young bucks are essentially supplying Columbus with a stacked bench. And who knows what all these minutes for the youth brigade might mean long-term? Fans can excitedly imagine the contender Columbus might gel into by season's end if all this youthful potential continues to go kinetic.