OBETZ, Ohio – In the midst of their rain-soaked 2-0 victory over Atlanta United on Saturday, Columbus Crew SC defender Harrison Afful hit the ground in the 27th minute after a collision that few saw take place.
The ball was quickly played far away from Afful’s position at the time, and play continued for a moment before stopping to deal with the apparent injury.
At the time, midfielder Wil Trapp said he heard a crack, but didn’t know what it was. Head coach Caleb Porter said he didn’t see it either. We now know that the sound was Afful’s jaw connecting with teammate Jonathan Mensah, resulting in a fractured jaw for the Ghanaian right back. It's another key loss for a team which typically relies on impact contributions from its fullbacks.
“I heard a sound, but you just never know – it’s wet and the ball is hitting sopping wet jerseys so you just don’t know what the sound is,” Trapp said. “So he went down and I thought it was a nose break, which is still serious but not a big deal. To hear that he broke his jaw is just devastating.”
Porter said Afful was immediately taken to the hospital, where he remained for a couple days to deal with the jaw fracture.
“As you know, with fractured jaws, they wire your jaw shut,” he said. “So he’ll have his jaw wired shut for a period of four to five weeks. From there, it will be a matter of his fitness and nutrition. We don’t have a clear timeline on his return to play after those four or five weeks.”
At the time, he said, he saw blood and thought “maybe [Afful] had lost some teeth.” He said he didn’t get the news until after the match.
The Crew are now missing their two presumed starting fullbacks for 2019 in Afful and Milton Valenzuela, who tore his ACL in preseason. Waylon Francis was brought in as the permanent left back replacement for the season, and now veteran utility player Hector Jimenez seems poised to take over the right back job.
“You never like to lose a quality player like him from your team,” Porter said. “But that’s why you have a squad, and it opens up an opportunity for Hector. We’re very confident in Hector and very comfortable with him. So we’ll have to manage this four or five weeks and then several weeks after that without Harry.”
Between Jimenez, 23-year-old Connor Maloney and veteran center back Josh Williams, who played right back early in his career, Porter said the team have decided they won’t be bringing in a replacement from outside the current roster.
“It’s a little different situation than the Milton situation where we knew he was going to be gone the entire year,” he said. “With Harry, it’s going to be six weeks, maybe more. So we have to get by during that period. Like I said, we’re confident in Hector and we have Connor Maloney as well, and Josh Williams has also played a little bit at right back. So we have some options, and with this type of injury where it’s short-term, we’re confident we can get through it.”
In the meantime, Trapp said the team isn’t going to forget about Afful, and will be giving him and his family all the support they can.
“He’s got a family and three little kids – that’s the hard part,” Trapp said. “When your jaw is wired shut, there’s only so much you can do. So it’s tough. We’re going to have to surround him as much as we can with love and help because it’s going to be a hard four or five weeks for him.”