The 2015 season has been a roller coaster ride for the Columbus Crew SC defense. With five games remaining, the Black & Gold have conceded 48 goals after allowing just 42 all of last season.
There have been positive stretches. The team began the season playing sound defense, allowing just six goals over the first two months of the year. Yet the negatives are what standout. From the beginning of May until the end of June, Crew SC allowed 19 goals in 10 matches. Columbus allowed at least three goals in a game more than once this year, the worst was a 5-2 loss to Orlando City SC.
"We've definitely been watching a lot of tape and learning from all these goals that we've given up," center defender and club captain Michael Parkhurst said. "These losses that we take - in Orlando, home against Dallas - they're only beneficial if you go back, you watch the tape, and you learn from them. Otherwise it's just a complete disaster so we have to learn from those mistakes and I think that we're doing that."
The defense has improved recently, both in performance and results. In an attacking system, Columbus is going to allow chances and wins are most important. Crew SC has only allowed more than two goals once in the last six contests with only one loss.
That setback came against FC Dallas two matches ago when Crew SC were without nine players, including both fullbacks, and loss 3-0 at home.
When the back line has been at full strength, it has played up to the level of a year ago. The group of Waylon Francis, Tyson Wahl, Parkhurst, and Harrison Afful have begun to develop chemistry, which is important defensively.
"I think continuity on the back line always helps," Parkhurst said. "You're more familiar with the system, with the way guys play, what's expected of you, different scenarios in games that come up, how our outside backs like to get forward and position of the opposite outside backs, what the other center backs are doing. All that stuff just is a little bit easier the more you get to play with the same group and it's helpful."
Emanuel Pogatetz was the starting center back early in the season, but was relegated to the bench in order to shake things up defensively. Wahl stepped in and has started nine of the last 10 matches. The game he didn't start was the loss to Dallas.
At the beginning of the season, head coach Gregg Berhalter expected new signing Hernan Grana to be the team's answer at right back after using several players a year ago. Grana played seven games for Crew SC before leaving the club due to homesickness.
It was a revolving door at right back until the arrival of Afful in late July. The Ghanaian has played and started in four out of the last five matches - missing the Dallas game due to international call-ups - and has helped to settle down the back line with his consistency.
"I think Harrison coming in, he's done a really good job," Parkhurst said. "He's solid there on the right side. I think collectively the team has done a better job defensively all the way from top to bottom."
Another contributing factor to the continuity and improvement has been the return of defensive midfielder Wil Trapp. The 22-year old not only controls things in the middle for Crew SC, but is a major part of the team defensively.
"He's been a big lift to the team since he came back from his concussion and I think that he's getting better and better," Parkhurst said of Trapp. "He helps out the back line a lot. We need him to be there to help stop counterattacks with both outside backs attacking. We're always working on that and the relationship with him and the center backs and him dropping into the back line sometimes."
At points throughout a match, Trapp's position calls for him to drop into the center of the defense. While Mohammed Saeid did well in Trapp's absence, he is more offensive-minded and isn't as used to the defensive responsibilities as the American.
With the end of the season fast approaching, the Black & Gold are nearly assured of an MLS Cup Playoff berth. The back four seems set and Trapp has returned to his position to help out as Columbus looks to continue to improve defensively for the postseason.
"It's getting better," Parkhurst said. "It's not where it needs to be yet to make a good run in the playoffs, but we've got five games left. We're still working on getting better and hopefully we can do that.