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2019 Crew Review: Center backs

Taking a look at how the Black & Gold central defenders performed this season.

MLS: D.C. United at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-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 third chapter of the Massive Report Crew positional review addresses the center backs of the Black & Gold roster.

The center back position was rightfully refereed to as the deepest on the Crew roster numerous times over the season and that label seemed appropriate as six different players were used by head coach Caleb Porter. Their performances were good most of the time, which is evidenced by the fact that the Black & Gold conceded only 47 goals during the regular season, less than four of the seven Eastern Conference teams who advanced to the playoffs.

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

Jonathan Mensah

The 29-year-old Ghanaian returned for his third season in Columbus as the centerpiece of the Crew’s defensive line and he most certainly performed as such, appearing in 24 matches (23 starts) and playing with different partners along the way.

Jonathan led the team in clearances (4.5 per game) and blocks (0.9) and even though his tackles (20th with 0.6) and interceptions (eighth, with one) stats both dropped from 2018, his hard work was recognized as he was named the Black & Gold’s 2019 Defender of the Year.

The defender managed an 84.5 percent passing accuracy during the season and, in a reflex of the coaching and playing-style changes, attempted 3.6 long balls per game (increasing from 2.7 last season). In 2019, Jonathan also committed fewer fouls (19) and received the fewest yellow (6) and red (0) cards since his arrival in Columbus.

The two-time World Cup veteran missed 10 matches during the season due to injury, national team call-ups or coaching decisions. Coincidentally or not, the Crew went through one of its worst stretches of form in the year by recording five consecutive losses, one tie and just two wins between June 23 and July 27, when Jonathan sustained a knee injury.

Josh Williams

It was sort of an injury-plagued season for the Ohio native, one in which he saw the field in just 16 matches (15 starts) and in three of them, he filled in at right back. It was the second-lowest number of matches played by Williams in the six seasons in which he was an active piece of the Crew roster — he didn’t played a single match in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Williams started to struggle with injuries in preseason as a foot issue sidelined him for the first four matches of 2019. He also had to deal with a muscle injury and a concussion and the problems prevented him from starting in more than three consecutive matches on the entire season.

When he was healthy, Williams was as solid as usual, as he was the best-ranked center back of the team in tackles at the end of the season (and 10th overall on the roster with 1.4 per game), 12th in interceptions (0.7), seventh in clearances (2.6) and fourth in blocks (0.4). He passed the ball at an excellent 85-percent rate and scored twice — a game-winning goal in a 1-0 victory against the New England Revolution and the first in a 2-1 triumph over the Montreal Impact (which he left injured).

Williams has consistently been a useful piece for the Crew and he could continue to be that if injuries give him a break. He’ll be 32 early next season and his ability to stay healthy will determine how he’ll be used by the club in 2020.

Gaston Sauro

The Argentinean returned for his fifth season with the Crew surrounded by a lot of hype after a long-awaited recovery from a severe knee injury which only allowed him to play in 30 matches between 2015 and 2019.

Sauro’s reunion with the Black & Gold was brief but intense as the 29-year-old Argentinean started in 15 of the first 25 matches of the season before he was sold to Mexican side Toluca on Aug. 7. And, by all accounts, he delivered more than expected for a player who hadn’t had a lot of playing time recently.

Even with his departure, Sauro ended the season as the best center back in tackles and the ninth-best on the entire roster (1.6 per game), was fourth in interceptions (1.7), fifth in clearances (2.6) and fourth in blocks (0.4). He was shown four yellow cards in 2019.

The strongest last memories Black & Gold fans will have from the fun-loving Sauro, though, will certainly be the goals he scored in the first two home matches of the season (his only two with the club) to secure a 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls and to give the team all three points in a 1-0 victory against FC Dallas. After the second goal, in typical Sauro-style, the Argentinean proclaimed he’d be in thee running for the Golden Boot.

Alex Crognale

The 2019 season seemed to be another step forward on Crognale’s steady development as an MLS-caliber defender. Even though he played in 17 matches in his 2017 rookie season and in just 12 in 2019, the Homegrown Player left the impression of having become a much more solid and mistake-free defender in this third year with the club. That, however, wasn't enough to secure him a spot on the roster for 2020.

Crognale started the season away from Columbus, loaned out to USL’s Indy Eleven and returned in June. He was immediately thrown to the lions, as he had to step up and help the team to survive its worst run of form of the season between the end of June and the middle of July. After that, he was in and out of the starting lineup.

The towering center back had decent stats in his limited time, registering 0.8 tackles per game (16th on the entire roster), 0.6 interceptions (15th), 2.6 clearances (fifth) and 0.8 blocks (third). He also contributed with an assist in the Crew’s 3-2 road victory against the Red Bulls.

Two points of attention, though, are the relatively high number of cautions he received (5) in just 12 matches and the fact that his fouls-per-game rating increased. Despite his progress, you'd expect more from a 25-year-old player than what Crognale showed during his time in Columbus.

Aboubacar Keita

Another Homegrown Player, Keita also started the 2019 season, his first with the Crew, far from Central Ohio. The 19-year-old defender was loaned to the USL’s Richmond Kickers but an early injury limited his time there to just three matches.

A few months later, it was time for the tournament that would change his season. Keita was called up to the U.S. National Team for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, where he started in all five matches that took the Americans all the way to the quarterfinals.

In France, Keita showed some weaknesses typical to young defenders, but also that his ceiling is high enough that he could be an elite MLS defender someday. Shortly after his return, he got his first chances with the Crew and the highlights of his 10 appearances were the four consecutive start from mid-July to early August.

During his limited time, Keita showed some promising signs — 0.8 tackles per game (17th on the roster), 0.7 interceptions (11th), 4.3 clearances (third) and 0.4 blocks (fourth). For him, though, more important than numbers was acquiring experience to help improve his decision-making. At this point, he’s still probably a year or two away from being a viable starting option, but he’s certainly in the mix to get more playing time going forward.

Lalas Abubakar

Abubakar’s playing time with the Crew in 2019, his third season with the club, consisted of all 90 minutes in 2-0 road loss to the Houston Dynamo, a match in which he registered eight clearances, two interceptions and two blocks.

The abundance of options at the center back spot made Abubakar expendable in Porter’s eyes and the defender was sent on loan to the Colorado Rapids, where he flourished. The Ghanaian started all 22 matches he played and ended in the team’s top-four in all major defensive stats categories: first in both clearances (6.5 per game) and blocks (1.2), third in tackles (1.7) and fourth in interceptions (1.3).

Abubakar benefited by a playing in a system that maximized his skills as a defender, but it’s undeniable he made huge steps forward from the physical but inconsistent player he was in first two years in Columbus.

His future is now up in the air as, even though he’s under contract with the Crew for 2020, the Rapids are reportedly willing to send more than $1 million in allocation money to make his move permanent.

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The Crew’s disappointing season is certainly not on the center backs. This group of players was decent at the very least and it’s not likely that major changes happen at this position as the Black & Gold have plenty of options and a good mix of veteran presence and up-and-coming talent.

Expect at least one center back to the signed after Crognale's departure, but the most important piece of the puzzle is Abubakar. If he returns and can build on his positive season in Colorado, he would be in position to compete for a starting spot in the team, most likely alongside Jonathan. If he’s gone, the Crew will get plenty in return, which could be used to either sign a starting-caliber center back or strengthen another area of the roster.

Other Crew Reviews:

Goalkeepers

Fullbacks