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2018 Columbus Crew SC season preview: Fullbacks

Who will step up at fullback in 2018 for the Black & Gold?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2018 Major League Soccer season just around the corner, Massive Report is previewing the upcoming season.

So far, we have graded Columbus Crew SC’s offseason transfers and taken a look at the goalkeeper position. Now, we will look at the fullbacks, important cogs in the Black & Gold’s system.

Harrison Afful

The veteran member of Crew SC’s burgeoning Ghanian contingent, Afful enters his fourth season with Columbus and is the presumptive starting right back.

Afful was one of the few bright spots in the bleak 2016 season but had an uneven 2017. Missing time with a few nagging injuries, the birth of his son and international duty, Harrison started in 21 matches (and three substitute appearances) in 2017 after starting 30 times in 2016.

The Ghanian right back was able to find his form toward the end of the year, putting in an excellent run at right back during the MLS Cup playoffs, hitting the post with a screamer against Atlanta United and scoring a beautiful goal against New York City FC. In total, Afful played in 24 games in 2017, starting 21.

Having recorded only one assist last season, Harrison will be expected to provide more service for new striker Gyasi Zardes, who should prove to be a much more threatening aerial presence than former forward Ola Kamara.

Afful’s contract ends at the conclusion of 2018, so the Ghanian will have to prove to head coach Gregg Berhalter that he belongs with this team for the future.

Milton Valenzuela

Valenzuela is the newest Designated Player, and first ever Young DP, for the Black & Gold and, with the offseason departures of Jukka Raitala and Waylon Francis, will immediately be the favorite to start at the left back position.

The 19-year-old Argentine came to Crew SC from Newell’s Old Boys, having come up through the same youth setup as Barcelona standout Leo Messi, and played in nine matches (making seven starts) during the 2017-2018 season.

While Berhalter may see Valenzuela as a more defensively focused left back, the Columbus system aggressively pushes its outside backs into the attacking half. So far in the preseason, Valenzuela has displayed skillful defense and the ability to get forward. If he can provide some defensive stability while making the occasional run into the attacking half, he should prove to be an excellent signing for the Black & Gold.

Hector Jimenez

The ever versatile Jimenez will once again be expected to fill in all over the Crew SC lineup, but will likely be the team’s second choice at both right and left back in 2018.

Jimenez played in 19 matches (starting 15) in 2017 and recorded three assists. While rarely standing out, Jimenez infrequently makes mistakes, proving himself one of the more valuable bench assets in MLS.

With a lack of depth at both the fullback and midfield positions, he will likely see ample time to contribute at various positions.

Connor Maloney

The 2017 third-round draft pick made two appearances (one start) at right back after playing as a forward for the majority of his Penn State career. As one of only four fullbacks, Maloney will likely see more time in 2017, especially if the 3-5-2 formation is redeployed. Having played as a forward, Maloney can also provide cover as a winger when needed.