There appears to be a defensive shakeup for Columbus Crew SC. The recent defensive meltdowns prompted a shift in the starting lineup.
One was expected, Wil Trapp returned to full fitness and instantly jumped into the starting lineup in place of Mohammed Saied.
A couple others weren't. First Chad Barson got the nod over the injured Hector Jimenez in Wednesday's matchup while Chris Klute started on Sunday. Perhaps more surprisingly, Tyson Wahl has now started two straight contests over Emanuel Pogatetz.
In Sunday's postgame, head coach Gregg Berhalter was asked about the recent changes to the backline, including the inclusion of Barson, Klute, and Wahl.
Berhalter was up front in noting that Klute's introduction was matchup based. The coach wanted to use Klute's speed to keep the Fire's David Accam in check. Berhalter then said that Barson had done everything required to retain his place, but the coaches made a matchup based decision.
There was no further clarification on Wahl's inclusion in the lineup. Berhalter moved to the next question. That silence is telling.
It's clear that the defense is struggling. The team has allowed the third-most goals in the Major League Soccer. Expected goals allowed tells the same story. After the team's lopsided loss against the Montreal Impact, Berhalter said that he was considering changes to the lineup. Wahl for Pogatetz appears to be part of those changes.
With three games in nine days, the coaching staff could have simply rotated the lineup with Pogatetz's exclusion on Wednesday. With Wahl retaining his starting spot on Sunday and Berhalter's lack of comment on the switch, this apparently was a performance based move.
Defensive play improved in the past two games. Crew SC posted their first shutout since April on Wednesday and then gave up a single goal on Sunday - from a deflected free kick. That's good news certainly, but the Fire offense is one of the poorest in MLS. They have second-worst offense by goals.
Digging into the Opta statistics, please bear in mind the usual caveats that apply (sample sizes and the nature of soccer stats). Still, it's not clear that Wahl is an upgrade by the numbers. I looked at the defensive actions (blocks, tackles, and interceptions) per 90 minutes and then broke them down by position on the field. Wahl trails other center backs that have played this year. Pogatetz and Parkhurst average 5.8 and 5.6 defensive actions. Wahl's total is the only one below 5, at 4.9.
There was another change in the lineup that may have made a bigger impact, Trapp played 180 minutes between Wednesday and Sunday. He stands well above his peers in defensive actions. A healthy and effective Trapp helps to shield that back line and makes it easier for whoever lines up in front of Steve Clark, whether that's Parkhurst, Wahl, or Pogatetz.
It remains to be seen if Wahl is the new starter at center back or if this is a message to Pogatetz to improve his recent performances. Either way, a healthy Trapp is a big addition to a shaky back line. Between Wahl, the right back by committee, a defensive unit players meeting, the return of Trapp, and playing the Fire... Columbus was able to right the ship a little bit on defense.