“He has the ability to be a very, very special center back at the next level.”
That was one of the first things Maryland associate head coach Brian Rowland said when speaking with Massive Report on one of Columbus Crew SC’s offseason additions, Homegrown defender Alex Crognale.
But before getting into what he is now, let’s take a look back at Crognale’s progression with the Terrapins.
Crognale, a Gahanna native, comes from an athletic family; sports are in his blood.
His father, Corey, played baseball at Marietta. Both his brothers played soccer. His older brother, Ben, at Loyola University in Chicago and younger brother Eli committed to Belmont.
Alex was a part of the Academy program with Crew SC for four years before leaving for the Terps. He won back-to-back State Cups in 2012 and 2013 and even played in multiple reserve matches for the Black & Gold.
It was no surprise then when Crognale elected to enroll early at Maryland in order to get ready for his first fall season of college soccer.
“We definitely always have a deep squad and he came into a situation where he didn’t always play,” Rowland said.
Crognale did find his way on the field and he excelled, helping the Terrapins to a 17 - 4 - 5 record, eight shutouts and a national championship appearance — a 2-1 loss to Virginia.
His college career continued on an upward trajectory, but it was not without challenges.
“I think he’s really figured out what it takes to compete and bring it every day,” Rowland explained, “because his spot was always, at the beginning especially, was always challenged for by players that had played that were a little older and also younger players coming through.”
The next step of Crognale’s career was realized when he signed a Homegrown contract with Crew SC in December, something the team had been looking forward to for over a year and a half.
“As soon as (assistant coach Pat Onstand) got to Columbus, he was definitely tracking Alex and we certainly gave him all the information that we had and as he progressed season to season,” Rowland said.
While success at a program like Maryland is always a positive heading into a professional career, it does not necessarily make for a productive Major League Soccer player — hello Jason Garey.
Of course sometimes it does, for instance U.S. National Team defender Omar Gonzalez, someone Rowland sees a lot of in Crognale.
“(Alex has) got a huge upside as a pro,” he told Massive Report. “He came obviously from the Academy with the Crew and had a lot of the tools needed to be a really dominant, big center back, but was still very rough around the edges and needed a lot of development still and some experience.
“He likens comparison to Omar Gonzalez, who we had before that. I think that there’s a lot of similarities there. They’re a little bit different, but I think that players like Alex don’t come around that often.”
At 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, Crognale has the size to be a center back at the professional level, but to play for the Black & Gold, a player must fit the system.
The possession-based style that head coach Gregg Behalter utilizes requires every player be good on the ball and it sounds like the Columbus staff did their homework on this one.
“He’s a very modern center back,” Rowland said of Crognale. “He can play out of the back, really good ability on the ball to build out and has huge range in his passing. He can play basically every kind of pass. So he’s really comfortable in building out from the back.”
As is typical of most center backs of his stature, Crognale is also good in the air. Rowland labelled him as a threat on offensive set pieces and a good weapon to have when defending set plays.
Crognale is also a natural leader. A two-year captain for Maryland, the defender is someone people “want to be around.”
“I think he does have some leadership qualities that at some point will probably come out,” Rowland said. “Maybe not in his first year, but on the field he knows how to demand and lead. And regardless of your year as a pro, you’re certainly going to be asked to do those things and called upon to communicate and he’s certainly learned to be an effective on-the-field leader as well an off-the-field leader.”
In terms of off the field, Crew SC are getting another guy who should fit in to what is already a strong, close locker room. Having never had any issues during his time with the Terps, academic or otherwise, Croganle brings a clean record that will please coach.
It’s hard to project a player from college to the professional ranks. It is a major step up in level of play and if the situation isn’t right, the player may not blossom as he should.
With his level of talent and work ethic, and the fact that he’s coming home, Crognale appears set to start an exciting MLS career with his hometown Crew SC.
“He has the ability to be a very, very special center back at the next level,” Rowland said of Crognale.
“I think that he is certainly in really good company in how he is regarded… We think that he should have a long career and hopefully that translates into being a starter and at some point maybe being a national team player because he certainly should be in the conversation if things go well. He has that ability.”