Columbus Crew SC have struggled defensively, there’s no doubt about that. But have the Black & Gold found an answer at the back, at least when it comes to center backs?
The pairing of Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams is proving to be what the team was hoping for.
While the two will still have a lot to prove, especially now with the postseason nearing, their ability to find positive results when playing together is becoming well-documented. If you're still in the “Jonathan ruins everything” camp, it's time to reflect on the last month of Crew SC soccer.
Since being partnered together in mid-August, Columbus has returned to its formational roots, enjoying an unbeaten streak and a period of detente from angered scrutiny.
The team’s traditional 4-2-3-1 has a natural vulnerability on the counter attack. This was always a concern in the setup, especially considering how the wing backs overlap and get forward, sometimes greatly compromising the two center backs.
To deal with this weakness, head coach Gregg Berhalter experimented with 19 different defensive pairings, as well as deploying the 3-4-2-1 formation for many fixtures during the middle passage of the season.
On August 12, Columbus partnered Jonathan and Williams in the three-man backline in a 3-1 victory over the Chicago Fire. Two weeks later, due to the addition of Designated Player Pedro Santos to the Crew SC attack, the Black & Gold dusted off the 4-2-3-1 formation to welcome the LA Galaxy to MAPFRE Stadium, a 2-0 win.
Ultimately, there was a struggle to find consistency, trying to discern which center backs best complement each other and in what formation that chemistry best works. While rookies Alex Crognale and Lalas Abubakar have demonstrated what they can offer when called upon, it appears the preferred central duo lies in the veterans, and the ideal formation is the tried and true 4-2-3-1.
That victory over the Galaxy is part of an ongoing seven-match unbeaten run. Williams and Jonathan have partnered together in all but one of those games — Jonathan missed out due to suspension — and Columbus conceded just eight goals over that stretch.
At a glance, we can see how this pair works. Jonathan is aggressive and will go into tackles. He adds steel to the backline — sometimes to the team's detriment — while Williams, though certainly no pushover, has a tendency to be reserved in his defensive posturing, cutting passing lanes and providing solid, composed distribution to outlet players. Both have the added bonus of being dominant in the air.
Jonathan and Williams (with some generosity from Federico Higuain) also showed off their offense prowess, helping the Black & Gold to defeat the New York Red Bulls over the weekend. The duo was hungry and both of them seized one of the few moments a central defender is given in a match to score with Williams grabbing the winner.
When the attackers are off their game, it's vital someone else steps up and Jonathan and Williams are two guys this team can count on to be aerial threats on set pieces
With an offense that is now clicking once again — 14 goals scored over the unbeaten run —the defense only needs to hold down the fort at the other end for Crew SC to continue its success.
The play of Jonathan and Williams as the anchor to the defense has done just that, and arguably more, which could make the Black & Gold an even more difficult out come the MLS Cup playoffs.