Putting it simply, Columbus Crew SC has struggled defensively lately.
Over the last four games, the team has conceded 11 goals, including five last Friday against Toronto FC. Columbus’ defense is the second worst in Major League Soccer right now, but the numbers are not the only thing that hurts.
There’s also the fact that many of these goals were absolutely avoidable.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter has already experimented with several options on the back line and midfield positions, but he is apparently yet to find a solution to the problem. Perhaps the answer to Crew SC’s defensive issues has a lot to do with the one piece this roster misses: a hard-nosed defensive midfielder.
In this case, we are talking about a physical and athletic player, who may not be as sound technically, but is able to cover a lot of ground and, most importantly, has good positioning and the ability to read the game and make the right calls on when it’s necessary to stop a play or not.
If you are a fan of international soccer, think about a Claude Makelele, a Gennaro Gattuso or a N’Golou Kanté kind of player. If you follow MLS, the most proper style comparison would probably be a younger Kyle Beckermann or Seattle Sounders’ Osvaldo Alonso. These are players who shield the back line efficiently and are willing to make a foul and even receive a yellow card when necessary to keep their teams out of danger.
Let’s take the Toronto game as an example on how the team could benefit from this kind of player. Toe be clear, Crew SC had an awful night in Canada and likely would have been be beaten either way, but three plays that led to Toronto’s goals could have ended up differently if a tough defensive midfielder was on the field.
The first one is Toronto’s opening goal. Victor Vazquez played a great match, but his pass that found Tosaint Ricketts in position to outrun Jonathan Mensah and be taken down by Columbus’ center back inside the box traveled for over 30 yards through the middle of the field, even with five defenders behind the ball. A well-positioned player could have intercepted or at least deflected that pass.
Instead, Justin Meram chases Vazquez from behind while central midfielder Wil Trapp is not quick enough to get over and block off the alleyway that leads to the through ball.
Toronto’s second goal, scored by Justin Morrow, could also be avoided. As our very own Collin Johnson described on his Anatomy of a Goal piece, Ben Spencer was not challenged after he dispossessed Trapp and had all the time he needed to feed Morrow on the left side. This is one of the situations where a foul would be more welcomed than a clear and imminent goal situation.
The Canadians’ fourth goal also showed the lack of decision making of the defensive end. When Jordan Hamilton cuts inside, he is surrounded by three Crew SC’s defenders, but none of them were able to either intercept or deflect his pass or, at last instance, stop the play. When the ball found Jonathan Osorio near the box, it was already too late to do something about it.
Crew SC has good options at the defensive midfielder position to play alongside Trapp, especially Artur, who clearly improves the team when he’s on the field. Nicolai Naess has enjoyed some success on this role, but he’s needed on the team’s back line in first place.
Tony Tchani was solid on this role in 2014 and 2015, when he averaged over 2.5 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game according to WhoScored.com, but his numbers dropped in 2016 (1.8 tackles and 1.3 interceptions), when the Black & Gold’s defensive issues became a major problem.
With the Cameroonian departed, Crew SC’s front office could take advantage of the summer transfer window, which will open on July 10th, to add the missing piece its roster clearly needs to be consistently competitive.
Despite the doom and gloom surrounding this team after one of the worst results in club history, many of the pieces are already there for the Black & Gold and it would not take much to help get this team back to the top of the Eastern Conference.
It could be as simple as one addition in the center of the midfield that turns everything around.