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2018 Columbus Crew SC season preview: Center backs

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Long a weakness of Crew SC, is center back now the team’s deepest position?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew at New York City FC Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

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

So far, we have graded the team’s offseason transfers, looked at the goalkeeper position and reviewed the fullbacks. Now, we turn attention to the center backs, long a weakness but now one of the deepest positions on the team.

Jonathan Mensah

The Ghanian former Designated Player — after the Young DP signing of Milton Valenzuela, Mensah’s contract was bought down with Targeted Allocation Money — started 25 games and made one substitute appearance during his first season with the Black & Gold in 2017.

Mensah struggled during the early parts of last year, and was labeled as a major bust by many. Nonetheless, Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter remained confident in the center back’s ability, keeping in him the lineup. With the trust of his manager, Mensah was able to find his form during the latter half of 2017, solidifying Columbus’ second half resurgence and push to the Eastern Conference Finals.

If Mensah can limit his errors and build on the second half of the 2017 season, he can further help solidify the Black & Gold’s defense in 2018.

Josh Williams

An Ohio native, Williams returned to Crew SC for the 2017 season, after spending the previous two years with New York City FC and Toronto FC. Williams started in 19 matches, making three substitute appearances, and scored three goals for Columbus.

The Cleveland State alum was a stabilizing force for a backline plagued by inconsistency and youth, and formed a successful partnership with Mensah during the second half of the year, helping propel the Black & Gold to the postseason success.

Playing time may be more difficult to come by for the veteran, but Williams will continue to be a leader for Crew SC in 2018.

Alex Crognale

One of two Homegrown players, and Gahanna natives, on the Columbus roster, Crognale will look to build on a 2017 that started off red hot but ended with a season-ending hernia injury. During his rookie campaign, Crognale started in 12 games and made five substitute appearances.

At his best, the Maryland Terrapin showed flashes of the promise that lead Berhalter to offer him a Homegrown contract, using his size and ability on the ball as important assets. Still, Crognale occasionally fell victim to rookie mistakes and struggled to sustain his early-season form during the long MLS calendar.

With a year of experience under his belt, Crognale will be expected to cut down on his errors and deliver more performances like he did early in 2017. With a full stable of cente backs competing for time, there will be very little room for error for the 6-foot-5 Ohioan.

Lalas Abubakar

With the fifth pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Crew SC selected Abubakar from the nearby University of Dayton. The young Ghanian was expected to provide a physical presence on the back line, and potentially pair up with his fellow countryman.

During the course of 2017, Abubakar made six starts and appeared as a substitute in one match during the regular season. However, when the pressure was added in the playoffs, Berhalter went to the young Ghanian, giving Abubakar three playoff appearances, including a start at Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Like Crognale, Abubakar will be expected to build on his 2017 experience, cutting down on his mistakes and competing with the deep center back pool for playing time.

Gaston Sauro

After knee injuries nearly ended his career, Sauro will suit up for the Black & Gold in 2018 after missing the entire 2017 season. In his three years with Crew SC, the Argentine has only played in 17 matches, 16 of those being starts.

Columbus has the benefit of bringing Sauro along slowly, allowing him to return to match fitness and compete for playing time. No matter how much he is able to contribute, the fact that Sauro will be able to play soccer again is a win for him and the Black & Gold.