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Defensive depth paying early dividends for Columbus Crew SC

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With plenty of options the Black & Gold have already improved the defensive performance in 2017.

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

After missing the playoffs in 2016, Columbus Crew SC approached the 2017 MLS season with a clear need to address: improve its defense. Ten matches into the regular season, it’s easy to notice that the Black & Gold not only increased its defensive productivity but also raised the number of viable options to be part of its back line.

In 2016, Crew SC had the second-worst defense in the league, with 58 conceded goals in 34 matches (averaging 1.7 per game). This season, the team has only 13 goals against (good enough for ninth best) in 10 matches (averaging 1.3 per game) and leads the league in interceptions (with 15.9 per game, according to WhoScored.com.)

It is also worth noting that the Black & Gold amassed these numbers while playing against four of the five top offenses of the league so far (Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, New York City FC and Toronto FC) and recorded three clean sheets, including the 2-0 win over the New England Revolution last Saturday.

A large portion of the defensive success has come thanks to young goalkeeper Zack Steffen who has the fourth-most saves and the fourth-best save percentage in the league so far in 2017.

While the numbers don’t lie — Steffen is become quite the shot stopper — he gives credit for the improved defense to those in front of him.

“I think they were all great,” Steffen said after the most recent match. “They all worked really hard from the first minute until the last minute and they were communicating, they were connected and they were leaving it all out on the field and that’s what we need to win games.”

If Steffen has been a mainstay between the posts, the only player to play every minute for Columbus this season, the same cannot be said about Crew SC’s back line as head coach Gregg Berhalter has used nine different players to fill it so far. Against the Revs, the team lined up with Hector Jimenez, Josh Williams, Designated Player Jonathan Mensah and Waylon Francis, with regular center back starter Nicolai Naess being pushed up in the field to the defensive midfielder role.

“A big part of our success this year is going to be dictated by guys who can come in and do a job for us,” Berhalter said. “We need depth. When you bring guys like Hector in, like Josh Williams and can get wins, it means a lot.”

Other than the five defenders who started last match, Berhalter has also used right backs Harrison Afful, who was excused from last match thanks to the birth of his son, and Connor Maloney, left back Jukka Raitala, who started eight games so far, and rookie center back Alex Crognale, who had a great season start and was injured.

The roster also comprises SuperDraft first-round pick Lalas Abubakar and Argentinean Gastón Sauro, who has a season-ending injury and won’t see the field in 2017.

For many teams, this many different combinations on the backline could be alarming, but Columbus seems to have found chemistry options that work regardless of who is in the middle and fullbacks who fit and understand the system.

Through ten matches this season, it looks like Crew SC has good options to work with on defense. Considering the teams has also shown good promise in the offensive end, being the fourth-highest scoring team of the league so far (15 goals for), it is reasonable to believe that the Black & Gold may be finally finding the relative balance the team lacked last year.