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2019 Crew Review: Fullbacks

Taking a look at how the Black & Gold fullbacks performed this season

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Columbus Crew SC season came to an end in early October with the Black & Gold missing out on the MLS Cup playoffs. While no postseason in Columbus is certainly a disappointment, the Crew did finish the year well and there’s optimism in the air heading into 2020.

But before we start looking ahead, we have to look back and review the 2019 season piece by piece. The Massive Report positional review rolls on with an in-depth look at the fullbacks.

Under Gregg Berhalter, Columbus’s outside defenders were tasked with creating width and attacking opportunities from the flanks, and occasionally tucking in as auxiliary central midfielders. Caleb Porter much preferred his outside backs to play wide, swinging in crosses and contribute more defensively than they have in past years. Let’s take a look at how the Black & Gold’s outside backs performed in 2019.

Editor’s note: The fullbacks are listed in order of the number of appearances and not in any form order.

Harrison Afful

The Ghanian right back returned for his fourth full season with the Crew and was expected to continue to provide a wide attacking threat as he has in past seasons. Unfortunately, injuries and a change in system derailed those plans.

From the first match of the season, it was clear Porter planned to use Afful differently than Berhalter. Under Berhalter, it would not be uncommon to see Afful shifting inside with the central midfielders or cutting inside the right winger to find space for a shot. Porter preferred to use Afful to create width and attacking chances for the attacking front.

The biggest difference in Afful’s offensive production can be seen in the dramatic change in his shots per game from 2018 to 2019. Afful took 56 shots in 2018, good for 1.75 shots per game. In 2019, he took only 19 shots for an average of 0.86 shots per game.

This is not to say that Afful was not an effective player this season. During Afful’s six-week absence with a broken jaw, the team struggled to its their way. In the 22 matches played with Afful, Columbus earned 31 of 38 points on the season, grabbing points at a pace of 1.4 points per game compared to the season average of 1.12. During the 12 matches that Afful was out, many due to injury, the Black & Gold earned only 0.58 points per game. In 2019, a full season average of 1.4 points per game would have sent the Crew to the playoffs as the seventh seed.

Aside from a freak injury, Afful displayed excellent health for a player entering the twilight of his career. Defending is still the weakest point in Afful’s arsenal. He continues to perform well as a one on one defender but has a habit of mentally switching off when tracking back.

Columbus appears to have found Afful’s replacement in Scottish right back Chris Cadden, signed from Scottish club Motherwell during the summer transfer window and sent on loan to Oxford United immediately afterward. The 23-year-old Scot has a history as a midfielder and has recently begun to play at right back. If Afful wants to keep his hold on the starting spot for 2020, he’ll have to beat out the young Scot.

Hector Jimenez

Jimenez has long been the Black & Gold’s Swiss Army Knife and 2019 was no different. With the injury to Milton Valenzuela, Jimenez became the preferred backup option at both outside back positions. When Afful broke his jaw against Atlanta United, Jimenez immediately stepped in to replace his teammate and was able to shift to the left after Afful’s return and Francis’s subsequent injury.

The 2019 season was arguably Jimenez’s best with the Crew. He was able to net one goal and contribute four assists in 23 appearances, equaling his highest goal total and one away from his highest assist total in Columbus. Jimenez likely would have eclipsed these totals had he not picked up a late-season injury that saw him miss the final nine matches of the season.

It may never show up in the statistics, but Jimenez continues to be one of the most important players on the roster. His ability to contribute on either side at an arguably above-average level as well as slide in as a midfield substitute is invaluable even as ages past 30.

Waylon Francis

Francis was re-acquired from the Seattle Sounders almost immediately following Valenzuela’s season-ending injury. The Costa Rican struggled to fit in with Seattle’s style, appearing in only 11 matches during his one year in Cascadia. With Valenzuela sidelined, Francis’ familiarity and relatively cheap price were enticing and he was brought in to slot back into his starting spot on the left side of the defense.

In his 17 appearances back with the Black & Gold, Francis was unable to record either an assist or a goal. Still, the 2019 season was maybe his best season since his seven assists in 2015.

The lack of offensive production likely has much to do with the shift in play in 2019. While Francis still tended to whip in crosses, he did not have the aerial prowess of Kei Kamara to bang in those headed passes. Gyasi Zardes is no slouch in the air, but he much prefers to score with his feet. Francis maintained his penchant for intercepting passes and was able to provide solid defensive cover on the left side of the field.

Unfortunately, an injury kept Francis out for the final 11 matches of the season. If healthy, Valenzuela will certainly be the team’s first-choice left back next year. If Francis is content to provide spot starts and substitute appearances on the left then he will be a helpful piece in the 2020 season.

Connor Maloney

Maloney recorded only three regular season appearances during his first two MLS seasons, leaving 2019 as a pivotal year in his development. Thrust into action following injuries to the Black & Gold’s first-, second-, and third-choice outside backs, Maloney ended up recording 10 appearances in 2019.

The third-year player spent most of his college days playing as a forward. Berhalter drafted the Penn State product with an eye toward turning him into an attacking outside back but tended to rely more on Jimenez as a right-sided substitute. Pace has always been one of Maloney’s best traits, but the converted defender has struggled to develop defensive instincts.

In his first few appearances this season, Maloney struggled heavily on the defensive end. At home against FC Cincinnati, he was directly at fault for Emmanuel Ledesma’s first goal and was the focus of many first-half attacks.

But as the season went on, Maloney’s positioning improved. Maloney was brought into the team as a right back but was thrust into playing on the left for most of his 10 appearances this season. Once he acclimated to the other side of the field, his positioning improved. He still has a tendency to get lost on balls crossed into the penalty box but has shown real growth defending 1 v. 1 and pushing the ball up the sideline. Porter has become fond of Maloney’s unending hustle, which often bails him out of tough positions. If Maloney can shore up his positioning, he can be a valuable substitute for the Crew in 2020.

Milton Valenzuela

The hope for Valenzuela in 2019 was that he would build on his excellent 2018 campaign and cement his status as one of the best left backs in MLS. That hope was dashed before the season began when the young Argentine tore his ACL during a preseason workout.

Valenzuela had ACL repair surgery in February of 2019 and spent the rest of the year rehabbing. By the end of the season, he was back to doing field work and should be ready to contribute in 2020, hopefully needing little time to find his 2018 form.

Following Valenzuela’s injury, 2019 was always going to be a difficult year for the outside backs. Afful’s midseason injury only made matters worse and injuries by both Jimenez and Francis in the final third of the season stretched the midfield depth to the absolute limit.

Barring more catastrophic injuries, 2020 will look much different. Valenzuela should be back to his spot on the left and Afful will have a tough battle for time on the right with Chris Cadden. There is a chance that both first-choice outside backs in 2020 will be under the age of 25, and that’s something Crew fans should be excited about.

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