Recent confirmation that Columbus Crew SC will be without Gaston Sauro for the entirety of the 2017 season is a terrible blow for the team. Already with a shaky defense and captain Michael Parkhurst leaving, Columbus needs a player of Sauro’s caliber in the back line every week. The Argentine is the fifth-highest-paid central defender in the league and is rightfully among the most talented. Due to his injury and other players departing this offseason, Crew SC is in store for a major reworking of their defensive core. Head Coach Gregg Berhalter has began doing just that… Let’s take a look:
- Back in September, central defender Tyson Wahl announced his retirement due to repeated concussion concerns.
- This offseason, Corey Ashe, left back, had his option declined by the team, leaving Waylon Francis as the only natural left-sided defender.
- Central defender and fill-in right back Chad Barson is out of contract, and the team reports they are not close to a deal.
- A few weeks back, Captain Michael Parkhurst was sold to Atlanta United FC for Targetted Allocation Money (TAM).
- Gaston Sauro to miss the 2017 season due to injury.
- Rookie defender out of the University of Maryland, Alex Crognale, was recently signed to a homegrown contract. He is an unproven but talented center back.
- Former Crew defender, Josh Williams, was picked up in the waiver draft from Toronto FC.
- Jukka Raitala; left-sided wingback from Finland. Likely set to start on the left and push Waylon into a reserve role.
- Jonathan Mensah; Ghanaian centerback. Arrived on a transfer from Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala.
Who will start in 2017?
Taking a look at potential defensive starters, it is almost certain that Nico Naess and Harrison Afful will retain their starting positions in the new year. But what about the other two defensive slots? Let’s take a look….
- Left back: Jukka Raitala, Waylon Francis
- Centerback: Nicolai Naess, Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, ?, Alex Crognale
- Right Back: Harrison Afful, Hector Jimenez
To take a look at the left side: Waylon Francis has shown he could be a reliable left-sided defender in the league but has lacked in consistency. Raitala however is set to be a quicker and more capable replacement for Corey Ashe. With both Raitala and Francis available I think this position will do just fine, but I expect Raitala to start the first minutes of the season. Also as support, the team would have Hector Jimenez and Josh Williams to fill in if needed. Waylon will push time for minutes and has the capability to push Raitala once he regains form. I see the two wingback spots as a 3-way contest between Raitala, Afful, and Francis — Especially since Raitala can play on either side.
Central defense on the other hand has been a larger issue for the team. I think spending money there would be money well spent. Now, it may seem unjustified having Sauro on such a large contract, but he is out for an entire year. Now, if Sauro remains in the team’s long-term plans, Nico Naess has shown that he is a very capable defensive midfielder -- so this could be an option for 2018. But for now, he needs a partner. Central defender is possibly the most daunting role in the Crew’s current setup as the system of play often leaves them with many one-on-one critical defending scenarios -- so the players need to be better than just good; they need to be excellent.
Crew SC signed Ghanaian center back Jonathan Mensah. He would come with great experience, playing in the Russian League with Anzhi Makhachkala, in France with Evian Thonon Gaillard, and in La Liga with Granada. Jonathan, as he goes with on his jersey, takes up a “Designated Player” roster spot due.
I think it is a smart signing. He comes with high-level experience, is very strong in defense, good in the air, fairly quick, and is even capable of playing on the outside. His signing would also be very welcome to Harrison Afful, a fellow Ghanaian and could hopefully lend to some great chemistry in defense.
It is expected that Harrison Afful will retain his starting job on the right flank after performing well in the 2016 campaign. Supporting him will be Hector Jimenez and Jukka Raitala. Jonathan and Josh Williams are also capable of playing as outside backs, however would perform the role with a more defensive focus than Afful or Raitala. Harrison put in a good year in 2016 but struggled at times on the defensive end and is in dire need of fine-tuning his crosses. An offseason of hard work and he will be ready to go to start the year.
A starting defensive line of Raitala - Naess - Jonathan - Afful is a comforting prospect to begin the 2017 season. The team still needs another defensive signing (or two) to add adequate depth behind a starting four which could rise to be one of the best in MLS come the new season.
The team now, for the first time in a while, has comfortable depth in defense with Francis, Jimenez, and Williams as available options. Newcomer Alex Crognale is unproven but holds a lot of talent and, at the present, looks as if he will stay with the team rather than seek a loan move to Pittsburgh.
Defensive issues have long been a woeful mark on Gregg Berhalter’s helm in Columbus. Clearly he sees the need for aided defensive stability, as shown by the addition of Raitala and Jonathan. However in order for the defense to be completely solidified, changes in midfield need to take place if he plans on retaining the same tactics as last season.
In our next segment of Crew Offseason in Review we will take a look at the midfield and see what needs to be done to be a top contender in the next iteration of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Until next time... Stay massive, friends.