If there’s one thing everyone around Major League Soccer can agree about, it’s probably that Columbus Crew SC’s playing system is one of the toughest to learn in the entire league.
And it gets particularly harder for center backs.
For Crew SC, just getting the ball back is not enough. To be in position to compete for a place in the starting lineup for head coach Gregg Berhalter, defenders are expected to make the most of each possession.
Lalas Abubakar, who is starting only his second season with Crew SC, is excelling in that department in 2018.
The Ghanaian defender, who started all three matches the team has played so far, displayed impressive progress on his passing game when compared to his rookie year.
“I had to work on passing out of the back, my first touch and on being calm when I have the ball,” Abubakar commented. “These were the things coaches always talked with me about and I kept working on them during offseason and preseason. I’m getting more comfortable as I play and I’m happy to see my improvement.”
Abubakar’s progress has been substantial to say the least. For starters, he currently holds the best passing accuracy rate (92.3 percent) of the entire roster according to WhoScored.com, better than even team captain and central midfielder Wil Trapp who is considered by many one of the best passers in MLS. His rating is also the second-best for center backs in the entire league, only behind Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst, who played for Crew SC from 2014 to 2016.
Last weekend, in the road game against the Philadelphia Union, the 23-year-old defender led the team in passes (74) and passing accuracy (93.2 percent), something unusual for a defender. One week before, when Crew SC hosted the Montreal Impact, he was third in both categories, with 53 passes and an efficiency rate of 90.4 percent.
Abubakar, who is also getting the job done on the defensive side of the ball, is averaging 51.7 passes per game this season, which is good enough for fifth best on the team, and almost double of what he had in 2017 (26.2).
“The big thing is seeing who is pressing you,” he told Massive Report. “When I get the ball, I know that definitely one of our players will be open and I need to find that player. This is something I have in my mind all the time and I try to work on it every day. It’s not perfect, but I keep working.”
But it has not always been like that for Lalas. Selected by Crew SC fifth overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, the Ghanaian struggled to get playing time during his first year with the club, amassing only seven games over the season.
Part of it was just him getting used to the system and making the necessary adjustments.
“Last year was hard,” Abubakar admitted. “I wasn’t so comfortable playing out of the back and the coaches just kept telling what I needed to work on. When I arrived from Dayton, it was very different. I knew I was coming to a place where we play soccer, building out of the back, which is something I wasn’t used to. I came here willing to adjust and learn and I continue learning and improving.”
According to Berhalter, adjustments on small but important details, such as the right preparation to receive the ball and the better positioning to be found by a teammate, were some of the aspects of Abubakar’s game that needed to be improved.
The coach is pleased by the progress made by the center back, but acknowledges that much of it was earned by Abubakar’s hard work during last season.
“We’ve seen such an improvement with him,” Berhalter noted. “I think it was just being clear about our expectations for him, what he’s supposed to do and what his responsibility is in that position. And then a lot of credit goes to him for taking extra time. He’s always here after training, so it’s not a surprise he’s on the field now because when you put in that type of work and you work on your game and you try to improve, good things happen.”
The coaching staff was obviously important to Abubakar’s improvement on the ball, but he also got words of advice from two veterans who play the same position.
Jonathan Mensah, a fellow Ghanaian, and Josh Williams, one of the players more familiar with Crew SC’s system, have both played pivotal roles on the development of the young defender.
“I grew up watching Jonathan playing in two World Cups and he has been my mentor,” Abubakar added. “Having the opportunity to play with him and to learn from him is great. And Josh is very calm on the ball. I watched them both a lot last year and I picked a lot of good things. It’s great to have two great veterans around, I learn from them every day.”