It’s no secret Columbus Crew SC have been porous defensively the last few years.
Since Gregg Berhalter took over as sporting director and head coach, the Black & Gold have allowed 42 goals (2014), 53 goals (2015) and 58 goals (2016) respectively, all in a 34-game season.
Until last year, the defensive deficiencies of Berhalter’s attacking style — which encourages the wing backs to get forward often, leaving two true defenders and a midfielder to protect the goalkeeper — hadn’t cost the team. The first two seasons Crew SC made the MLS Cup Playoffs and in 2015, Columbus hosted the MLS Cup Final.
In 2016 however the inability to stop teams on counter attacks, or stop teams at all, cost the Black & Gold as the club finished ninth in the Eastern Conference.
At the end of the year, Berhalter promised to turn things around. He said he learned from the mistakes of that disappointing season and vowed to have multiple new starts before 2017.
So far, the focus of the offseason has clearly been on the backline in order to improve that defensive record.
After the first two round of Friday’s MLS SuperDraft, Columbus has made six acquisitions — including the two draft picks — and five of them were defenders.
Michael Parkhurst is gone and Gaston Sauro has a season-ending knee condition — which Massive Report reported might go well behind 2017 — so additions were needed.
Crew SC added center backs Alex Crognale, Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah to provide cover, but when another central defender, Lalas Abubakar, was taken with the fifth-overall selection in the draft, something didn’t add up.
That is unless Berhalter plans to change from his variation on a 4-5-1 formation he has used his first three years in Columbus.
And that might be exactly what will happen in 2017.
“You could read into it that we would be experimenting with some type of three-in-the-back situation,” Berhalter said when asked about this topic on Friday’s conference call.
So what would a three-man backline look like for Crew SC?
Potentially Nicolai Næss, who was acquired midseason last year, could partner with Mensah and Williams as the three most experienced central defenders. But Næss has also done well in the midfield for the Black & Gold, so he could be an option there.
If that’s the case, Williams and Mensah would be with a rookie, either Crognale or Abubakar, unless Berhalter isn’t done adding defenders.
And what about the wing backs? Some combination of Harrison Afful, Waylon Francis and new signing Jukka Raitala could be pushed higher up the field and operate in a similar role, but that would mean either Justin Meram or Ethan Finlay would lose their spot on the wings.
This is an interesting new wrinkle Berhalter has potentially disclosed. Massive Report will be keeping an eye on this in the preseason and seeing how things might look when Crew SC takes the field on March 4.