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A new belief in defending is the root of Columbus Crew SC’s success

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The Black & Gold have made defense a focus in 2017.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was a struggle for Columbus Crew SC.

It wasn’t just that the Black & Gold finished 8-14-12 and missed the postseason by six points, but how it happened.

“I don’t think we responded to much at all last year, to be honest,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said following the team’s fourth win in seven game this season. “And it was these types of games and it was other games. I think we struggled to find our way consistently last year.”

Crew SC’s offense was not so much of an issue in 2016, finishing in the middle of Major League Soccer with 50 goals scored, but it was the defense that struggled mightily last year. Again, it wasn’t just that they allowed 58 goals, tied for second-worst in the league, but how it happened.

Over the course of 34 MLS games, Columbus conceded 22 goals after the 75th minute. This was by far the worst in the league, the next-best team allowed 14 over that final stretch, and turned wins into ties and ties into losses for Crew SC.

The Black & Gold’s defense will never be tops in MLS, the attacking style will leave them vulnerable at the back at times, but it has made drastic improvements this season. Through seven games, Columbus has allowed eight goals after playing the league’s two best offenses.

“I think overall the mentality to defend for one another,” winger Justin Meram responded when asked what’s changed defensively. “You see how we swarm on the ball when we’re just helping out the guy next to you. I think that has been very well this year.”

Outside of games against the Houston Dynamo on the road and the Portland Timbers at home — two teams that have combined for 29 goals in 13 games — Crew SC has allowed just four goals in five matches.

What’s more impressive is the team has figured out how to shutdown games in the second half. Last year, the fear wasn’t if the opponent would score late but rather when. Those concerns have gone by the wayside this season as the Black & Gold have conceded only two second-half goals and none in the final 15 minutes of matches.

“We made it a priority to win the last 15 minutes of the game,” captain Wil Trapp confirmed. “I know that’s not the second half, but those are the moments where we just lost games (last season)... we’ve got to flip that switch to know that it’s crunch time and either we’re going to go to win the game or we’re not going to lose this game because we’re going to dig in and it’s showing in our performances.”

It certainly is showing.

After giving up the first goal in Saturday’s game with Toronto FC at MAPFRE Stadium, Crew SC fought back and took the lead before halftime. The second 45 minutes was a clinic on how to close out a game, as TFC pressed forward and created chances but Columbus did not allow dangerous opportunities, keeping goalkeeper Zack Steffen clean for much of the half.

And defending has become a team mentality, as Meram mentioned. At points against Toronto, and this was not the first game he did this, forward Ola Kamara was back helping to get his team out of trouble.

He credits this to a belief that started when the team went on the road in Week 3 and earned a shutout against D.C. United.

“We know that we can shut it down,” Kamara said Saturday. “We have that belief in each other that after 2-1, you know they have great attacking players, but we still have that belief that we can keep the zero and maybe we can get a third goal as well. I think just everybody working for each other gives us that belief.”

Previously, it was about possession and playing pretty for Crew SC. This season, both the players and coaches have changed that approach somewhat and are willing to do what’s necessary to get wins, no matter what it looks like.

Sometimes that’s going to require a game like Saturday where the Black & Gold have to grind out a win. But three points is three points, no matter how it comes and right now it has Columbus at the top of the Eastern Conference.

“It’s step by step; it’s a work in progress,” Berhalter said.

“The belief is there. And that’s the important thing because it’s not always going to be perfect. We mentioned that in other games, but the mindset and the mentality is certainly there and that’s a lot to build from.”