Many things finally went right for the Columbus Crew in front of their fans on Saturday. The team seemed to be playing some free-flowing attacking soccer and creating good chances. When they created chances, they were able to put the ball in the net... and they did this more than once! Despite losing the possession battle - for the first time in a while - the central midfield was able to control much of the game. Most importantly, the Black and Gold finally beat one of MLS' top teams.
What may have been lost in the celebrations of all that went right was that the Crew managed to record their first shutout in five matches in all competition, including an Open Cup game against a PDL team. Okay, so maybe people realized this was the first clean sheet in almost a month, but how they were able to do this to a team that has scored the second-most goals in the league may have been lost.
What is obvious is that the return from injury of Chad Marshall was big for Columbus. The 6'4" center back has been a mainstay for Columbus' defense since being drafted in 2004. He is the Crew's longest tenured player and has played in 234 games, the most in team history.
There are not enough words to explain Marshall's importance to this team, but the backline is made up of more than just him. During Columbus' most successful season, the MLS Cup-winning campaign of 2008, Marshall was partnered by Danny O'Rourke and the two formed a solid tandem.
O'Rourke has since then moved back to the midfield and head coach Robert Warzycha has been looking for the right combination along the defensive line.
This season the Crew brought in journeyman defender Glauber, who had been serviceable but not great as he adjusted to life in MLS. Whether Glauber would have settled in and gelled with Marshall, fans will not find out any time soon, as he will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
As the Brazilian departs the Columbus lineup, an American returns in Josh Williams. Williams has had a strange career that has involved a bit of luck to get signed, a lengthy suspension for an unapproved over the counter supplement, and a lot of time with the reserves. Last year he broke through, Williams proved himself as a diverse and talented defender, seeing playing time at every position along the Crew's back line.
Williams was penciled in to be the right back and started 12 games there this year, but Glauber's injury changed Coach Warzycha's plans. At 6'2", Williams is physically more suited to play in the middle of the defense than out wide and got his chance against Montreal on Saturday.
Though Marshall has the bigger name and more recognition, Williams could arguably be more valuable to the Crew's defense. Not only is he able to stay in front of the opposition to prevent them from scoring, but he also he has demonstrated his ability to play out of the back, something that is lost on many American central defenders.
Williams' ability to find teammates, both on simple and more sophisticated passes, is what originally made him an option on the outside. He is able to link up with his teammates nicely and his athleticism allows him to get up and down the wings. When a team has center backs that can start the attack, with more than just an aimless boot down the field, it can be a benefit for the counterattack, something the Crew like to do.
Fans saw this against the Impact, as Williams distributed the initial ball that led to Columbus' first goal. While this pass found the head of a Montreal defender, his vision to look up and attempt to play Frederico Higuain in behind is something the Crew have not had in a long time.
While Marshall, the former Crew captain, is the most talented defender on the roster, he has never been much of a distributor from the back. He also lacks the pace at times to stay with some of MLS' faster strikers. Williams on the other hand has good speed, thus providing a good compliment to number 14.
The recent emergence of Chad Barson as a viable, and talented, option at right back has opened the door for Marshall and Williams to play together in the center of the defense. These two complimentary partners combined to get the shutout Saturday, and could be a tandem that will look to do this more frequently for the Black and Gold in the future.