Milton Valenzuela's injury leaves huge hole in Columbus Crew's 2019 plans

Milton Valenzuela - Columbus Crew SC - Pumps fist

Injuries suck. 

That's no groundbreaking analysis, of course, but still. They're an unfortunate underbelly of the game we love so dear which can rob us players chunks of time from short careers. So it goes.

The latest victim of the training table is Columbus Crew SC left back Milton Valenzuela, who is expected to miss all of 2019 with a torn ACL suffered in preseason training. Injuries suck. 

Valenzuela is one of the league's most promising players and the 20-year-old arrived under little fanfare ahead of last season, in part because of his position. But the Young Designated Player quickly became an integral part of the Crew's tactical pillars and one of the league's top fullbacks.

With how heavily former Crew boss Gregg Berhalter leaned on his fullbacks, Valenzuela's ability shined almost instantaneously.

Valenzuela made 30 appearances last season with a goal and six assists from defense. He was among the leaders for most attacking categories among fullbacks in his age-19 season in a new league. Below are his stats courtesy of Opta, with ranks among fullbacks (min. 1,000 minutes.) Not bad.

Chances created
35 (6th)
Chances created per 90
1.23 (6th)
Successful crosses from open play
27 (2nd)
Attempted crosses from open play
87 (5th)
Open play crossing accuracy
31.03 (6th)
Successful cross from open play per 90
.95 (3rd)

In Leg 1 of the Crew's Eastern Conference Semifinal against the New York Red Bulls, Valenzuela helped set up the game's lone goal, giving the Crew a vital 1-0 lead to take back to Red Bull Arena. 

The play typified Valenzuela's season. He received a big switch in a harmless position at midfield, with the Red Bulls defense shifting from left to right. He decisively took two touches forward and fired a line-splitting pass that took out four Red Bull defenders, including both defensive mids, right to Federico Higuain's magical right foot. Two touches later, Luis Robles is picking the ball out his net following Gyasi Zardes' smart finish. 

Now what?

The Crew re-acquired left back Waylon Francis from the Seattle Sounders for $50,000 General Allocation Money, ostensibly as a replacement. Francis spent four seasons with the Crew before heading to the Sounders ahead of 2019, but hasn't found much playing time lately. Over the last two seasons, the Costa Rican has made just 15 starts.

Francis isn't an awful contingency plan under the circumstances. He's a player familiar with the club, as many key players are still around from when he left just 12 months ago. His pace will be useful in transition, both in attack and defense. But it'll be tough for anyone to fill DP shoes at the position. 

It's likely that new head coach Caleb Porter won't rely on his fullbacks as much as the previous regime did – few do, to be fair – but that doesn't make Valenzuela's absence much easier to digest. 

It's unclear what style Porter will mold his Crew sides to. As Bobby Warshaw wrote, something many of us forgot during Porter's successful defend-and-counter Portland Timbers' teams at the beginning of the decade, Porter created a death-by-1,000-passes machine at the University of Akron. 

"They dared teams to pressure them and then humiliated them when they did," Warshaw wrote. "Pass, move, pass, move — chase, chase, chase — thank you very much. The midfielders looked calm and controlled. The attackers oozed confidence, grace, and creativity. Their soccer made the heart sing."

Under those instructions, Valenzuela's absence will be felt strongest. Crew supporters and neutrals around the league alike will be worse off without Valenzuela in 2019. 

In what should have been another step forward for the highly rated 20-year-old, 2019 will be about rehabbing and waiting for his next chance an official match, likely not to be until 2020. So it goes.