Andrew Erickson The Columbus Dispatch
Midway through his rookie season with Crew SC, center back Alex Crognale turned to a few of his veteran teammates with a realization.
“My (college) season would have been over two months ago, and we’re not even halfway through the season,” Crognale remembered telling them. “Being that focused and competitive and driven every day is a tough ask.”
For Crognale, the ask was even tougher considering his status as a homegrown player. The 6-foot-5 Gahanna native is poised for a steadier sophomore season in Major League Soccer after what he called a “pretty crazy and hectic 2017.”
“It’s definitely easier approaching it this season because you’ve been through it, you know what to expect in the preseason, and a lot of your questions you had as a rookie are answered now,” the 22-year-old said. “Being tuned in and focused for the full season — because in college it is so short — I think that’s the biggest jump.”
Fresh out of Maryland to start the 2017 season, Crognale felt he was prepared for the physicality and quickness of MLS to start his rookie season.
Crew coach Gregg Berhalter tested those attributes early.
Jonathan Mensah received a red card against Houston in the second game of the season, pushing Crognale into the starting lineup March 18 against D.C. United. Mensah missed another month because of a hamstring injury, giving Crognale an early string of successful starts.
But an injury of his own — a sprained ankle that forced Crognale out in the first half of an April 22 loss to the New York Red Bulls — nudged a steady season off course. Crognale made seven more starts over the next three months but played just 81 minutes after Aug. 1; hernia surgery in early October effectively ended his rookie season.
“Injuries like that happen and break up that confidence that you were building, break up that rhythm you had,” Crognale said. “It makes it tough to get thrown back into the lineup where you’re not feeling 100 percent mentally, physically.”
Crognale added that he hopes to learn from the experience.
“It’s something that I’ve thought about, how important it is to keep your body healthy and fit because injuries affect you more than just physically,” he said.
Crognale wasn’t alone. Crew midfielder Niko Hansen also had hernia surgery during his rookie season, and midfielder Artur missed chunks of his first full professional season because of separate wrist, hamstring and calf injuries.
“As their bodies adapt to the rigors of a yearlong season, they start improving, and they start gaining that resiliency that they need,” Berhalter said of second-year players. “Now (in) training camp, they are stronger and their bodies are able to endure more, and they don’t have the extreme highs and lows that you see with most rookies.”
To give himself a physical and mental reset after a long 2017, Crognale departed for Italy on Christmas Day for an extended trip with his brothers Ben and Eli. He visited the land of his ancestors for the first time, saw Rome, Milan and Florence and enjoyed a 50-ounce, dry-aged steak he called “the best I’ve ever had in my life.”
“You go through the highs and lows and ups and downs for eight or nine months, and it does take a toll on you,” Crognale said. “So to be able to sit back, reflect, think big picture and refocus my mind going into this season was really important.”
Properly rested — and nourished — Crognale will soon wrap up his second preseason looking to stand out among a group of close and competitive center backs.
“It’s gonna be very small things that set us apart,” Crognale said. “I’m excited to see how it unfolds.”