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Alex Crognale is playing like a defensive animal

Displaying an outstanding progress on the field, the rookie center back could assure his place on Crew SC’s starting 11.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks after defender Alex Crognale signed a Homegrown Contract with Columbus Crew SC, Maryland associate head coach Brian Rowland said that the Black & Gold were acquiring a player that “had the ability to be a very, very special center back at the next level.”

After Crognale’s first three MLS matches, Rowland’s words make even more sense than they did in January as the 22-year-old defender has been nothing short of impressive, not only being part of the Eastern Conference leader’s three wins, but also helping the club to two clean sheets and no goals allowed in the 197 minutes he has been on the field.

Last Saturday, the rookie made one more important step on his development, making his first start on a home game against Orlando City SC, replacing the injured Jonathan Mensah.

“Alex’s positioning was, I think, excellent,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match. “That’s what I’m most happy with today. I don’t think he was out of position once. Then when he’s in position, his ability to win the duels was crucial. I haven’t looked at the stats exactly to see how many duels [he] won, but it seemed like he was pretty high on that list.”

Against Orlando, Crognale had amazing eight clearances and one interception. The young 6-foot-5, 205-pounds center back has amassed some impressive number so far, leading the team in clearances (6.7 per match), being second on blocks (0.7) and sixth on tackles (1.3). And it gets even more promising to note that he collected these numbers playing against some of the most dangerous and physical strikers of the league, Portland Timbers’s Fanendo Adi and Orlando’s Cyle Larin.

“It’s great to see players of that stature,” Crognale said of his early matchups. “Those are big strong guys so I feel comfortable playing against a big striker now. And I guess next time we’ll see when we face a smaller guy it will be a different type of game for me.”

Besides his technical and physical skills, the towering Crognale also impresses for his mental toughness. Playing at the crucial center back position, the Gahanna, OH native is intimidated by the many challenges he’s been facing in his first months as a professional players.

“I was actually surprised,” Berahalter said. “I sent him a note last night and I told him that he was ready, but it was interesting to see his response today. He looked calm; he didn’t miss a step today. He’s a guy that has a lot of quality, but he also has the determination and he’s not scared at all to play in these games.”

If these first few games are any indication, Crognale is ready for an MLS career, but it’s still nice to have a head coach that believes in you.

“He said, ‘Be an animal,’” Crognale said. “And I thought I was able to come and do that today. We were able to get the shutout and play a great game.”

If Crognale keeps developing at the same impressive pace, Berhalter will have tough choices to make on the starting lineup as he current Designated Player Jonathan Mensah and Norwegian Nicolai Naess as the incumbent center backs.

After a season where the defense conceded far too many goals, Berhalter would rather have a tough decision on his hands than a backline that can’t keep the ball out of the net.