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Nicolai Næss Could be a “Perfect Fit” For Columbus Crew SC

The Black & Gold need defensive help and the Norwegian offers that.

When new defender Nicolai Næss was introduced at halftime of Columbus Crew SC’s 2-2 draw with Orlando City SC, the Black & Gold faithful gave the club’s addition a standing ovation.

An applause such as this one, typically reserved for an attacking player, a more sexy and appealing signing, was indicative of one thing: Crew SC need defensive help.

A quick look at the stats tells that story. Columbus has allowed 30 goals in 19 games this season, ranking the club 13th in Major League Soccer in the top defensive category.

With center-back Gaston Sauro expected to be out until September, Næss will hopefully fill the void and improve the defensive unit.

"That’s the expectations that he will make an impact," head coach Gregg Berhalter said of the defender. "That he will boost our back line, that he will give performances and we’re just going to have to see."

What helps the Berhalter’s confidence in Næss stepping in quickly is that his former club is in season. Næss last played for Stabæk as recently as July 17, meaning he is fit and ready for game play. For the Columbus coaching staff, it will be getting the defender up to speed on the style of play and Major League Soccer.

Getting him used to the Crew SC system shouldn’t be too difficult. In Norway, Næss played a possession-based style similar to what Berhalter deploys.

"Yeah, I like to have the ball and I like to play some passes and keep the ball on the ground, play good football," Næss said when introduced to the media for he first time. "So Columbus is perfect for me."

As for MLS, that could be a more difficult adjustment.

"I think that the league is going to be more challenging for him," Berhalter admitted. "He’s going to have to get used to playing against some top strikers. If you look at this league, there’s some quality guys at the forward position.

"There’s a lot of space on the field and in Norway it’s more compact. So the challenge for him is going to be how quickly he can adapt to space."

While there will be an adjustment period, it likely won’t take too long. Crew SC have already taken one player from the Tippeligaen in forward Ola Kamara. The striker, who has 10 goals in 10 starts for the Black & Gold, sees his former adversary as a great addition in Columbus.

"I think he’s a good soccer player," Kamara began. "He’s good with his feet, he can cross it from one side to the other side, he has good technique. As a defender, he’s a playing type. That’s why I think Gregg thinks he’s good for our system because he likes to play.

"I think he fits perfectly for our system and that’s why he’s here because he’s very good with the ball and he played in the defense that I think they were the team that conceded the least goals the last season when I was there. So that’s good for us."

If the description of Næss sounds familiar, that is not an accident. When Berhalter acquired Michael Parkhurst, who formerly played in Scandinavia as well, similar descriptors were used to explain his fit with the Black & Gold.

At 32-years old and already in the final year of his contract with Crew SC, Parkhurst is nearing the end of his soccer playing days. With that said, Berhalter is not ready to give up on his captain.

"It’s a similar profile to Michael," the head coach said of Næss. "But Michael has done well over the years and we just want to make sure that we have depth in these positions and this gives us that."

In Næss’ first live experience with the Black & Gold, the defender witnessed firsthand what has gone wrong in Columbus this year. Up 2-0 at halftime, Crew SC conceded twice and earned just a single point for third consecutive game and fifth straight at home.

Næss now knows the challenge to help the Black & Gold get things fixed and return to the MLS Cup Playoffs, should he choose to accept it. If he does, Saturday won’t be the only time he receives a standing ovation in Columbus.