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Looking to Left Back; A Lot Of Imperfect Options

Shaun Francis is the incumbent in the left back battle.
Shaun Francis is the incumbent in the left back battle.

The Columbus Crew's biggest weak spot remains left back. The team wasn't able to sign a player in the offseason to take the spot so the team is relying on trialists, draftees, and nominal incumbent Shaun Francis to replace Josh Gardner. None is a standout choice to start and it's probably one of the most wide open position battles the team has had in years.

Shaun Francis was the starter coming into the 2011 season, but injuries wiped out most of his year. He was rusty and very raw when returning from injury. The coaching staff was very clear they wanted to have a player to lock down a starting spot. Aside from a solid 2nd half to the 2010 season, Francis hasn't been that player. Now at 25, he needs to make progress or the team is likely to look elsewhere.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers and NASL Best XI left back Lance Laing joined the team in Florida and has seen action in all three of the Crew's preseason games, including time with what appears to be the first eleven. People who have seen him play say that he's talented with a high ceiling, but will need to adapt to MLS. It's a similar scouting report to fellow Jamaican Francis, but Laing has the benefit of a full season of soccer under his belt and is two years younger.

London born Kasali Casal is the latest player to get a look. He's a speedy player, much like Laing and Francis, and known to attack. His defense appears to be an afterthought. He came up in the Fulham youth system and then has bounced around, 5 teams in 6 years, including a 4 month stint with D.C. United in 2007. He's never held down a starting spot in any of his stops and at only 24 years old, he's already a journeyman. It's not a record that inspires confidence.

University of Washington left back Jaime Finch is still too injured to train and it will be very difficult to get up to MLS speed in less than a month. While Finch may make the team, it's unlikely that he would be an immediate starter.

On paper, Laing looks like the best prospect, the youngest of the trio and a record to point to, but jumping up leagues can be difficult. Speed tends to cover for a lot of deficiencies, especially in lower leagues. Savvy MLS attackers can take advantage speedy but technically weak players. Francis has had this problem and it bears watching if Laing or Casal make the team, if they suffer from it too.

The best starting left back option may already be on the team. Rich Balchan was very consistent as he initially filled in at left back while Francis recovered from his injury. Balchan underwent hernia surgery and has yet to see game action. Again, it will be hard to get into game shape quickly, especially after an injury.

The Crew are still left with a big question mark regarding who will be starting on March 10th. Every option will require a bit of faith; there is no clear starter yet. The coaching staff has 23 days to make a decision and be comfortable with it. After a long offseason, they are fast running out of time for other options.