Despite all the positives from 2015 for Columbus Crew SC, it became apparent as the season wore on that there were some issues with the team's defense, often prone to making a major gaffe and too often not on the same page. In many ways, that's a side effect of Gregg Berhalter's aggressive attacking system that often leaves the fullbacks high up the field and the center backs on an island.
But we know that Berhalter's system will remain the same, and so we look to the personnel at hand and hope that the players can find a way to grow more comfortable with each other and with their roles in the system to tighten up the defensive structure enough to vault the club to a higher level of overall play.
This is a look at the defenders tasked with that responsibility, including all four returning MLS Cup starters.
Harrison Afful — The Ghanaian right back was in many ways a revelation for the Black & Gold after joining midseason. He settled in to the league swiftly, which is often something that is a struggle for summer signees. The starting right back position had been a revolving door for years; even the preseason signing of Hernan Grana didn't pan out, despite some success on the field. Afful may have kicked that door down. A contract extension this offseason has at least temporarily eased fans' minds — the 29-year-old appears to be, at least for the immediate future, remaining a member of Crew SC (though the summer transfer window could still bring an offer the club can't refuse). Afful is a perfect fit for Berhalter's system, with a fluidity on the ball and the ability to put a good cross into the area. He's shown the pace to get up the field and the intelligence to not get burnt too often on the defensive side. A little MLS experience can only help him, now that's he's completed his first preseason with the team, but remember the season-long MLS grind can take a toll, and this will be the first time he's had to go through that. Still, he's capable of an MLS Best-XI type of campaign.
THE NUMBERS: Including the postseason, he made nine appearances — all starts — with two assists last season and was a part of three clean sheets.
Waylon Francis — Considered by many to be one of, if not the, best left backs in the league, the Costa Rican international has been a staple of Berhalter-era Crew soccer. He's now a two-year veteran, though still only 25 years old, and now has 59 career appearances in Columbus. He was named the club's Defender of the Year in 2015. Francis has been critical to the team's system, as he is fully engaged in Columbus' attack, pushing up the field and sending crosses in. At times he's been guilty of not tracking back as hard as possible when possession is lost, and at times it's hurt the Black & Gold. But his overall contributions are elite among the realm of current MLS fullbacks. He will be lost for a stretch of the summer to Copa America, just as he missed some time for the Gold Cup last season.
THE NUMBERS: Francis made 33 starts last season with eight assists.
Corey Ashe — Any time a team can bolster its bench with a player who has made more than 170 starts and played more than 16,000 minutes in MLS, it is probably a good move. That's the scenario for Ashe, a former regular for the Houston Dynamo through the club's best years. But last year he was deemed expendable and traded to Orlando City, where he played in nine games for an expansion franchise that seemed to favor flashier fullbacks. He's not as offensively minded or have the crossing ability of the two starting outside backs in Columbus' system, but he is a veteran two-way player who has always had a solid reputation — he's a two-time MLS all-star with MLS Cup experience. With Francis' impending Copa America stint and depth always important, Ashe should help the team remain steady all season long.
THE NUMBERS: Ashe appeared in nine games for Orlando City, making eight starts and playing 665 minutes while registering three assists.
Chad Barson — A Homegrown player and a remnant of the Robert Warzycha era, Barson has seen his minutes diminish each season, but is still around and appears set to be the primary backup to Afful at right back. The most defensive-minded of all the outside backs on the roster, Barson is not a true fit in Berhalter's system, but last season saw him used as a late defensive sub on occasion. He still seems prone to sometimes make mistakes or get caught out of position, but is less risky in his style of play. The expectation is that he will see a similar role to last year, likely getting some U.S. Open Cup starts and perhaps one or two MLS starts, with a handful of appearances as a situational sub. If Afful were to go down long-term or be sold, it would be likely that Crew SC would look for a more permanent option rather than settle with Barson.
THE NUMBERS: The right back notched 10 appearances and four starts and did not get on the field in the postseason. He had one assist. He played 456 minutes in 2015 after playing 766 in 2014 and 1,612 in 2013.
The center backs
Michael Parkhurst — The captain. Though he occasionally came under fire from some supporters last season, Parkhurst has quietly been one of the best American center backs of the last decade. He broke in with the New England Revolution, where he earned himself MLS Defender of the Year honors before moving on to have a solid stint with Danish powerhouse F.C. Nordsjaelland. After a jump to Augsburg in Germany didn't work out, Parkhurst joined Crew SC prior to the 2014 season. The question is: Where does Parkhurst currently stand in his career? He has never wowed with any particular skill or athletic ability, he's just been a heady defender who plays angles and reads the game extremely well. Last year we saw that ability tested, and sometimes it failed. Parkhurst did have to work with a rotation of partnerships, and the hope is that settling in to a more steady pairing this season will allow better communication and positioning. The 32-year-old is entering the last portion of his career, but he started 38 games last year and there's no reason to think he can't do it again. Capable of playing fullback as well, Parkhurst has the ability to play the ball out of the back that Berhalter's system requires. Worst case scenario, Parkhurst is clearly declining as he gets older. Best case scenario, his style of play adapts well even with declining skills, and he has more than enough savvy and experience to win an MLS Cup.
THE NUMBERS: Thirty-eight starts for more than 4,200 minutes — the most in his career — with one assist and 13 clean sheets.
Gaston Sauro — Columbus fans are excited to get a full season of Sauro, after the 26-year-old Argentinian was signed at midseason and didn't make his debut until the latter stages of the campaign. In fact, he may face as much pressure as any Black & Gold defender, with many looking at him as the player to help correct many of the back line's woes. Sauro began his career at Boca Juniors in his home country before moving to Swiss side FC Basel, where he played for two seasons before going out on loan to Italian club Catania in Serie B. He was signed by Columbus on Aug. 6, 2015, and played in four regular-season contests and four postseason games. At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Sauro gives the defense a more physical edge alongside Parkhurst's cerebral game — Sauro picked up five yellow cards in his eight games, so it is clear he won't be phased by the physical side of MLS. Fans certainly hope that it is a central pairing that complements each other well for the length of this season. With Crew SC not garnering a reputation as the toughest or most physical side, Sauro's presence could help add that to the team's approach. The key will be not picking up too many cards and avoiding injury. The MLS grind is one that often takes its toll on foreign players, and Sauro's bite will have to account for that slog or he'll miss significant time to wear and tear or suspension.
THE NUMBERS: Sauro made eight appearances — all starts — for Columbus and played 663 minutes. But he did miss time to injury in the regular season and was suspended for one game in the playoffs due to yellow card accumulation.
Amro Tarek — This young Egyptian is the newest face among Columbus defenders, arriving on a season-long loan from Spanish side Real Betis this offseason. A dual-eligible 23-year-old (he can play for either Egypt or the United States), Tarek's 6-3, 200-pound frame provides hope that he can offer a similar element to Sauro — physicality and the ability to battle in the air. He's more of an unknown than Sauro, however, having a less impressive resume. Tarek's early playing days were in Germany, and he was a part of the systems at Freiburg and Wolfsburg, but he never played any higher than the reserve teams for either side. In 2014 he headed to Egypt, where he spent two seasons with El Gouna FC, becoming a regular before signing with Betis. He had not yet appeared for the Spanish club when he came over to Columbus. What he'll actually bring to the table is still a mystery, but it's clear that Berhalter believes he fits the mold of what he wants in a center back. He supposedly has some experience playing outside back as well, which should speak to his mobility, if nothing else. It appears, however, that Crew SC has him slotted firmly at the center back position.
THE NUMBERS: No prior MLS experience. Made 30 appearances with El Grouna FC in the Egypitan Premier League.
Tyson Wahl — Along with Barson, Wahl is the other defender who pre-dates Berhalter. He was essentially a full-time starter in Warzycha's final season, but has moved to a part-time role under Berhalter. If he makes more than eight or nine starts this season, it means something has gone wrong. A veteran of 11 MLS seasons and five MLS teams, Wahl brings experience to the table. He's essentially the definition of an average MLS player, which is probably not the guy you want getting a lot of time for a Cup hopeful squad. He spends too much time emergency defending and isn't especially athletic, but he does have a lot of experience to lean on and he's been a good servant to the club. Although not every moment was pretty and he didn't make the defense any better, he did an admirable job filling in as a starter late in the season while Sauro acclimated/was hurt/was suspended and played a lot of minutes during what was, arguably, one of the better defensive stretches of the season for the Black & Gold. That said, for the club to take a step forward this year he needs to be nothing more than a veteran role player.
THE NUMBERS: Wahl made 21 appearances with 15 starts in 2015, logging more than 1,500 minutes, nearly identical to the previous season. He had two assists and played a part in two of the team's clean sheets.