There's the old saying, "defense wins championships." In MLS this tends to hold true. Two of the last three MLS Cup winners were the top defense in the league the year they lifted the Cup and the Colorado Rapids - who won in 2010 - were top five defensively.
The Columbus Crew is looking to make the MLS Playoffs for the first time since 2011 and need improvement out of a defense that once was the strength of the team.
New head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter has made several changes along the back line in the hopes that it can help the Crew return to their former glory.
The 2013 Crew defense allowed 46 goals, fifth worst in the Eastern Conference. The lineups fluctuated throughout the season due to injuries and poor form.
Center back Chad Marshall started 30 of the team's 34 games. He was expected to be partnered by newcomer Glauber, but the Brazilian tore his ACL in mid-June and missed the remainder of the season.
This forced then head coach Robert Warzycha to shift his plans. Josh Williams played in the middle more frequently and the door was opened for rookie Chad Barson at right back.
The left back position was in constant flux throughout the year. Tyson Wahl saw the most time there, but also played in the middle after Brian Bliss took over for Warzycha. Augustin Viana, who also battled injuries, and Williams saw time out wide, but no one player locked down that spot.
What Has Changed
Gone are the last remnants of the championship winning defense from 2008 as Chad Marshall was traded to the Seattle Sounders and Danny O'Rourke was not resigned. Glauber was also let go after one season in Columbus.
While Tyson Wahl, Josh Williams, Chad Barson, and Augustin Viana remain on the roster for 2014, the additions made by Berhalter seem to indicate he wanted to reshape this back line.
Costa Rican internationals Waylon Francis and Giancarlo Gonzalez were acquired this offseason along with MLS veteran and U.S. National Team member Michael Parkhurst.
Francis is a left back who has shown ability to attack on previously, something Berhalter expects out of his wing backs. Gonzalez is the typical big center back, similar to Chad Marshall. Parkhurst brings smarts and experience and can play center back or on the outside.
Columbus also added rookies Ben Sweat, Matt Wiet, and Ross Friedman to the roster. Sweat has tons of athleticism to get up and down the wing, but is still working on his defensive abilities at the professional level. Wiet brings college credentials from Indiana and UCLA, but will have to earn his way in with the Black and Gold once he returns from injury. Friedman played at Harvard and should provide depth on the defensive line.
Eric Gehrig also returns in 2014. He has been a solid rotational piece for the Crew over the last three seasons and will likely provide more of the same this campaign.
What To Expect This Season
Berhalter said when he arrived in Columbus that too much money was being spent on the defense, yet he has primarily strengthened this unit after the departures.
The opening day back line will likely be Waylon Francis at left back, Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez in the center, and Chad Barson or Josh Williams on the right side.
The right back position has been one of the contested spots during preseason. Williams earned the start in the Crew's 4-1 win over Sporting Kansas City in their final preseason game so don't be surprised to see him stay there for the opener with D.C. United.
Parkhurst also leaves Berhalter with some decision making. He was a center back in his days with the New England Revolution (2005-2008), winning MLS Rookie and Defender of the Year, but U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sees Parkhurst as an outside back. If he wants to make the World Cup team, it would help him to play out wide, which may occur at times.
The Crew has depth along the back line that will be tested throughout the season. Aside from injuries and fatigue, the team could potentially lose Parkhurst, Gonzalez and Francis during the World Cup. This will give opportunities to Williams, Barson, Tyson Wahl, and Ben Sweat.
This is a defense that could be much improved if the players can gel. The World Cup will cause disruption, but it is a long MLS season.
Francis, Williams, Barson, and Sweat all provide the attacking style that Berhlater will expect on the outside. It will be up to those that remain back to cover when these players get forward.
If Gonzalez and Parkhurst can form a tandem similar to Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke in 2008, the Crew should be sitting pretty on that end of the field. Gonzalez also adds the offensive threat on set pieces the Black and Gold lost when trading Marshall.
I expect improvement and production out of this group and likely more offensive statistics, as they look to be part of the attack.