The Columbus Crew defense was solid in 2013, giving up just 46 goals in 34 games, yet new head coach Gregg Berhalter elected to make changes to the back line heading into his first season in charge.
Gone were defensive staples Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke, two of the club's longest serving players. Also, central defender Galuber, who was brought in the year before to be Marshall's partner in the middle but tore his ACL part way through the season, was not brought back.
Instead Berhalter turned to new faces in Michael Parkhurst, Waylon Francis, and Giancarlo Gonzalez. Those three partnered with Josh Williams in the early part of the season to form a defensive unit that only allowed seven goals over the first two months.
In the new system Berhalter installed, the defenders were asked to do more than just their defensive responsibilities. The expectations for the outside backs were to get forward early and often to provide the width for the formation. As they got forward, the center backs slid wide and a central midfielder, typically Wil Trapp, would drop back to form a three man back line.
While Francis and Williams both had the athleticism to get up and down the outside, they each had to raise their fitness levels. At times early in the season one or both got caught forward and were unable to get back quickly enough to slow down the opponent's attack.
As the season progressed, different scenarios forced Berhalter to make changes along the back line. Both Gonzalez and Francis were called up to the Costa Rican World Cup side and Parkhurst was in camp with the U.S. Men's National Team ahead of the summer's tournament. In mid-May against the Portland Timbers, the Black and Gold replaced Francis with second-year defender Chad Barson and Parkhurst with veteran Tyson Wahl and conceded three goals for the first time all year.
The following weekend, Berhalter made some alterations at home, looking to provide his team with a bit more on the attacking side. He replaced the departed Gonzalez with Eric Gehrig and started outside midfielder Hector Jimenez at right back in order to get forward more naturally in a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire.
Despite struggles to get wins throughout the summer months, the Black and Gold typically played well defensively, averaging a little more than one goal per game.
The worst performance of the season came in mid-July, when Columbus faced the New York Red Bulls on the road. The Crew fell 4-1 on the day and Thierry Henry - who scored a goal and registered three assists - and his attacking teammates, consistently pulled the defense apart.
The Black and Gold received bad news in July as well with the loss of Williams who continued to improve at the right back position. The 26-year old suffered a blood clot issue that eventually required surgery to remove a rib that was squeezing a vein and cost him the entire second half of the season.
Towards the end of August, it was announced that Gonzalez, who was one of the best defender at the World Cup and in MLS play, had completed a transfer to Italian Series A side Palermo. The transfer received a record fee for an MLS defender. In his place stepped Wahl, who performed admirably the remainder of the campaign.
The Crew signed former Middlesbrough defender Emanuel Pogatetz at the beginning of September as a replacement for Gonzalez but the center back hardly saw time while he adjusted to life in MLS, playing in just two games.
A defensive line always wants to have cohesion so it is remarkable Columbus was able to do as well with as many changes as they were forced to make throughout the season.
Final Grade: B+
The Columbus defense finished ranked sixth in the league, conceding 42 goals on the year. For the most part, the team could count on the back line to hold the opponent to a goal or less, but there were points during the season where the consistency wasn't quite there.
Berhalter will look for his defense to continue to adapt to his style and improve heading forward and it is likely the staff will bring in depth reinforcements headed into the new year.