Last year's MLS Cup Champion LA Galaxy continued a trend of top defenses winning MLS Cup. The Galaxy tied with D.C. United, who were the top team in the Eastern Conference, for the best defensive record, conceding only 37 goals on the season. They were the third team in the last four years to have the best defense and win the Cup.
Columbus Crew SC's defense was one of the top groups in MLS in 2014, conceding just 42 goals and recording eight clean sheets. Head coach Gregg Berhalter, who was a defender as a player, plays a risky style defensively, encouraging his outside backs to push forward, yet the team did well limiting the damage.
There have been some changes on the defense for 2015 as the Black and Gold look to improve upon a successful first season under their new coach.
Crew SC's 42 goals allowed last season was fifth best in the league. The stout defense was in large part thanks to the addition of captain Michael Parkhurst, who was a consistent rock defensively. While he does not possess superior athleticism and is not blessed with the typical size of a center back, Parkhurst's intelligence and positioning made him an All Star in his first year with the Black and Gold.
Partnering Parkhurst for much of the year was Costa Rican international Giancarlo Gonzalez. The center backs formed what was likely the best defensive tandem in the league over the first 11 games. After an impressive World Cup performance with the Ticos, Gonzalez played six games back in Columbus before he was purchased by Palermo of the Italian Sirie A in the largest transfer ever received by MLS for a defender.
Veteran MLS defender Tyson Wahl stepped in after Gonzalez's departure and played well at center back for the majority of the regular season. Wahl struggled in the MLS Cup Playoffs against the New England Revolution, along with the rest of the Crew SC back line.
Gonzalez's Costa Rican teammate, Waylon Francis established himself as the Crew SC's left back quickly in 2014. He led MLS in assists by defenders as well as helping to shut down one side of the field. Although he was a part of the Tico's World Cup team, he did not make an appearance during the tournament.
The right side of the Crew SC defense was a bit of a revolving door in 2014. Josh Williams began the season there, starting the first 11 games before other options were explored. Eric Gehrig, Hector Jimenez, and Chad Barson all saw time at right back, but no player locked down the position.
What Has Changed
Berhalter signed experienced center back Emanuel Pogatetz in September of last year, but the Austrian only played 52 total minutes the remainder of the season. Although he has been around the team, Pogatetz is essentially a new signing for the Black and Gold in 2015.
Pogatetz is expected to step in at center back, where he played alongside Parkhurst for most of the preseason. Francis should maintain his spot on the left, while the right will likely be occupied by new signing Hernan Grana.
Grana comes to Columbus from Boca Juniors, where he struggled some with Argentina's biggest club. Now, in a system that better fits his skills, getting up and down the wing, Berhalter hopes he will finally be the answer at right back.
Crew SC also acquired Chris Klute in a draft day trade with the Colorado Rapids, who is capable of playing on either side of the back line.
There are also two rookies along in the defensive group for the Black and Gold this year. Crew SC used their first-round pick on central defender Sergio Campbell out of UConn and took Kalen Ryden from Midwestern State in the fourth round. Both players saw time in the preseason with Ryden playing mostly at center back, but also saw time on the outside.
What to Expect This Season
Although there are some changes, Crew SC fans should expect more of the same from their team's defense this year.
Francis and Grana will likely be the starters on either flank to begin the season with Parkhurst and Pogatetz in the middle. Grana missed part of preseason for the birth of his son, so he may not be ready for 90 minutes in game one, but he impressed enough to earn the right back spot before he departed.
The fullbacks have a heavy workload getting up and down the field, so other players will see time there as well. After a breakout 2013, Klute struggled with injuries while with the Rapids last season. A new home may be what he needs to revive a career that looked so promising just two years ago.
Klute, along with Barson, Hector Jimenez, and potentially Ryden will provide depth on the outside when needed.
Berhalter demonstrated in his first year in charge in Columbus that he likes to have consistency in the middle of his defense. Unless there is an injury or a national team call up, it is unlikely the central defenders will change often. Pogatetz should add the tall, physical presence that left with Gonzalez, complimenting the strong positional play of Parkhurst.
Despite the solid statistics from last year, the Black and Gold gave up too many opportunities to the opposition. Part of this is due to the attacking nature of the team, but some of it was due to clumsy defending. A year later, the Crew SC players should be more familiar with how to play together and that should result in less mistakes.
Francis and Grana, and Klute when he got his opportunity, were very dangerous going forward in preseason. Francis may not replicate his six assists from a year ago, but he will create chances for his side. Grana should give them a reliable option coming forward on the opposite flank and he is a candidate to contribute a couple of goals himself.
While Parkhurst will continue to be his steady self, Pogatetz could be a player that earns a lot of headlines around the league this year. His physical style of play will be noticed early in his MLS career and he could become one of the top center backs in the league if he remains healthy.
Check out Massive Report's 2015 preview of the Crew SC Goalkeepers and check back for other position previews this week!