The Crew return three starters from a solid defense that set the team's all time scoreless minutes streak, but also had 7 games where they gave up 3 or more goals, including a 6 goal shelling in Seattle. Success will certainly rest on how well this unit holds together, especially with an offense that saw tremendous turnover.
The talent is certainly there for the defense to shut down the opposition. The back line is lead by Chad Marshall, perhaps the top center back in MLS. The 2008 and 2009 league Defender of the Year stepped up last year to earn the captain's armband.
Marshall is unparalleled in the air. Not only does he win many headers, he can also place them where he wants to. He can quickly recycle possession or clear a ball from danger with a flick. His technique is very sharp, he often can use his long legs to deny an entry pass while holding up a target forward.
There aren't many holes in his game. While not slow, he is susceptible to pace. Teams will often try to drag him to wide areas to neutralize his areal advantage. Even when pulled wide he is still an excellent on the ball defender and an adept tackler. The 6'4" Californian recently signed a multiyear extension to extend his stay with the Crew. He is the longest serving member of the team, entering his 9th year in black and gold.
Julius James starts the year recovering from offseason surgery, but will resume his starting duties once recovered. James is a very good compliment to Marshall. He is a speedy player who uses his anticipation to step forward and cut out entry passes. He can take a risk with the dependable Marshall behind him.
While not as big as Marshall, James is still very strong and can hold up a forward. He's a solid one on one defender but can get out of position or make an ill timed tackle to give away a foul in a dangerous area. Overall, he's well suited to the roving defender to pair with Marshall.
Carlos Mendes and Danny O'Rourke have both seen time while James is out injured. Mendes is a dependable veteran option. O'Rourke continues to try and return from his major knee surgery. They both are very versatile and that makes it a bit hard to find one spot to play in. They can help the team in many different areas.
Sebastian Miranda quietly put in a very good season at right back. The Chilean was an upgrade at right back adding defensive stability and timely offensive forays. Not a showy player, he often flew under the radar. He's a very technically sound defender with nearly a dozen years of professional experience. He may not bomb up the sideline like Crew legend Frankie Hejduk, but he did record three assists last year.
Left back is the only unsettled starting position along the back line and the weakest spot on the team. Shaun Francis enters his 3rd year as the nominal starter. Carlos Mendes saw some time in preseason and Rich Balchan, currently injured, may be an option after returning from hernia surgery.
Francis had an injury filled 2011 season after unseating Gino Padula in 2010. Once returning from injury, he struggled to get into game form. He's fast, but still very raw. He doesn't have great positional sense. He also struggled with his passes and decision making. He wasn't able to unseat Josh Gardner last year and his preseason continued the same form.
Veteran Mendes can play along the back line and had been playing in the center, but O'Rourke's recovery made him a viable option at left back. He is a natural central defender, but can play out wide in a pinch. Warzycha likes the settled professional attitude he brings.
Balchan may be the best option this season. He's currently recovering from surgery, but was the starter at left back as a rookie last year. He showed poise beyond his years and was a standout before succumbing to a series of injuries that cut short his season. He has to get back to training and then get into game shape before he's in the mix. The team doesn't have a timetable yet.
The team continues to look for options to further test Francis. Currently Montenegrin Nemanja Vuković is with the team, but is unsigned. He's on an extended trial as the team decides if he's the option on the left.
Eric Gehrig leads a group of young reserves. He appeared in 8 games last year and started 4 of them. He showed he was capable of filling in at center back and in midfield. This provides even more depth in the middle.
Josh Williams is now in his third season with the team, but has yet to see league action. He's more notable for his positive test for a performance enhancing substance he claims to have ingested in an over the counter drug.
The team has several unproven players to back up Miranda on the right. Korey Veeder and rookie Aubrey Perry have never appeared in a league game, but both have been with U.S. youth national teams. They likely would be passed over for Mendes or O'Rourke if Miranda was injured for any length of time.
Warzycha has a high degree of continuity along the back line, only Mendes and Perry are new to the team this year. However, left back remains a weakness. Either Francis will have to improve markedly or he'll be replaced more sound options. With the offense in transition, the back line will probably be relied on to keep the team in the game and earn some points, much like they did last year. If the left back situation settles, they will likely improve on last year's positive performances.