Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter wanted depth at the outside back position.
"It's no secret that our fullbacks have an extremely high workload," he said earlier this offseason. "If you look at last year, we played a number of people at both left and right back. We need enough bodies there, in those positions."
This offseason, Berhalter and his staff added two experienced outside backs - Argentinian Hernan Grana from Boca Juniors and American Chris Klute from the Colorado Rapids - to go along with Waylon Francis, Chad Barson, Tyson Wahl (who was mostly used in the center of the defense), and Hector Jimenez, who all played the outside back roll at some point last season.
After losing Josh Williams, who started 13 games at right back, and Eric Gehrig, 20 games played on defense for Crew SC, finding replacements was a necessity.
From initial preseason results, it appears the Black and Gold have not only added to their depth, but brought in quality players as well.
Grana has played in all three of Columbus' preseason games, totaling 147 minutes, and has impressed fans and coaches alike.
"Hernan's done well so far," Berhalter said on a conference call Thursday. "What we like about him is that he's adapted very quickly on how we want to play.
"Obviously it's not a finished product, we still have work to do, but he's made a big impact so far and we're happy."
Although he was asked to focus on the defensive side of the ball with Boca, Grana has quickly fit into the Crew SC's attacking style of play. Berhalter demands a lot of his outside backs, getting forward and providing much of the width of the formation while in attack, and Grana has made a nearly seamless transition so far in preseason.
On top of his comfort out wide in the attack and his ability to deliver a dangerous cross, Grana has shown a knack for getting in around the goal mouth as well. During the second preseason contest with the Austin Aztex, the right fullback was inside the attacking six-yard box on more than one occasion and scored two goals against London United.
Last season, Crew SC fullbacks consistently got forward but it was almost exclusively on the wings. Grana recognizes the chance to get to the inside, allowing Ethan Finlay, in the case of the London game, to provide the width and cross the ball. This movement either takes a tracking defender away from Finlay or makes Grana an open target at one of the most dangerous areas on the field, as it did on his first goal for the club.
Francis has often been opposite Grana in the preseason, giving the Black and Gold a dynamic attack from the back. Francis led all MLS defenders with six assists last year in his first season with Columbus. If Grana, who will miss some some time for the birth of his son, locks down the starting right fullback position and Francis maintains his spot on the left - both seem likely - Crew SC could have a very productive and feared attacking defensive pairing.
Despite not having the best start to preseason, Klute is still in the mix for one of the fullback spots as well. For the former Colorado man, it's about adapting to the Black and Gold's style.
"Chris is a very dynamic, attacking-minded outside back," Berhalter said. "He's learning the system now and he's learning his responsibilities within our system. So I think he's doing well. It's not easy. A lot of the guys already know our movements and what we're looking for so he has to get caught up with that but he's doing a good job."
In his first two games, totaling 90 minutes, Klute demonstrated a willingness to get forward on the outside but left space behind. FC Dallas exploited this for their first goal in a 3-1 defeat of Columbus. Klute, who played 57 MLS games with the Rapids, is used to getting forward and should be another weapon for the Black and Gold on either side, but does need time to grasp the system and build chemistry with his teammates.
In the third game of the preseason, Klute seemed to settle in a bit - although the completion of London United must be taken into account - scoring his first goal on an assist from Grana.
Barson is not a player to forget about either. The 23-year old Akron product only appeared in 13 games a year ago, but will at least provide depth for Crew SC. Barson scored the lone goal in the victory over the Aztex, as he got all the way to the end line before tucking in a Justin Meram cross.
Barson provides a steady middle ground for Columbus' back line. He is solid defensively and has the ability to get forward. In his rookie season, when he started 18 games, Barson showed skill on the ball and delivered dangerous crosses at times, registering one assist. Barson is still young and developing, but he gives Columbus another player who can play either side of the defense if Berhalter needs.
So far in preseason, the Crew SC staff have used Jimenez exclusively in the midfield. Last year, he was forced onto the back line, but it is a position Berhalter is comfortable playing him.
"The understanding is that Hector's a guy that has an extreme amount of versatility and you need that in the squad," Berhalter explained. "We're comfortable with him playing four different positions: right attacking midfield, central attacking midfield, left attacking midfield, and right back."
While at fullback last year, Jimenez used his experience as a wide attacking player to get forward, but was also good defending one-on-one. He is another player who can serve in crosses, but also get inside and be dangerous around the 18-yard box.
Berhalter stated early in the preseason that the outside backs would need to remain fresh and it was evidenced last year by the rotation and substitution pattern at those spots. In 2015, it is not only the pure numbers the Black and Gold have with their fullbacks, but the quality that will make this unit one of the best in the league.