COLUMBUS, Ohio – A week after rookie Homegrown center back Alex Crognale put in a man-of-the-match performance in his MLS debut for Columbus Crew SC, the club found another rookie hero in their 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers.
With the game tied at 2-2, it wasn’t usual suspects like Ola Kamara or Federico Higuain to give Columbus the win, but the team’s ninth overall MLS Superdraft pick, Niko Hansen, who made his professional debut as a substitute in the 60th minute.
A striker at the University of New Mexico, Hansen has been converted into a winger by Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter. But he put his forward’s mentality to good use to find the winner, putting himself in position to collect a rebound in the Portland box for the 84th-minute winner.
“It was a little bit of figuring out if it was real or not,” Hansen said afterwards with a laugh. “It’s unbelievable; there’s so many things you want to think in that moment.”
“It’s been hard to keep Niko off the field, to be honest, the way he’s been training and the way he’s been performing in [friendly] games,” Berhalter said. “He hasn’t gotten an opportunity yet and this week he’s looked good again, and we really wanted to get him involved in the game.”
Hansen said he’s been trying to stay patient while waiting for his opportunity. And while he admitted there were plenty of nerves in his debut – he found himself “trying to catch my breath a little bit” for the first five minutes – he was ready for the opportunity.
“It was a little bit of waiting for the right moment,” he said. “I heard the whole week that I had a good week of training; I think I was ready to go in.
“It’s just waiting for the time and finding the comfortable game for me to come in.”
The rookie said Meram, who he replaced for his debut, has been a major influence in his young career. Meram made a similar transition from playing striker at the University of Michigan, and Hansen said he appreciates the role the veteran has played.
“He’s definitely got a lot of talent on the ball and he’s very good one-on-one, so I do see a little bit of myself in him,” Meram said. “Hopefully I can be one to mentor him going forward.”
And in Berhalter’s eyes, Hansen proved his worth before he even scored his first professional goal.
“If you take out the goal, I think his performance was spectacular,” Berhalter said. “He was very secure on the ball, his defensive work was excellent, and in a debut for him, it shows he’s got a lot of quality.”