The backline was a strong point for Columbus Crew SC in 2018. Gregg Berhalter had an array of options at his disposal throughout the season. Unlike current coach Caleb Porter, Berhalter was apt to rotate his center backs.
Last season, Columbus used six different center back combinations with the typical duo being veterans Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams. Young defender Lalas Abubakar was heavily active throughout the campaign as well. As he became healthy, Gaston Sauro featured prominently through the final stretch as well.
In 2019, Crew fans shouldn’t expect to see a similar rotation as in past seasons. Porter employs a different philosophy when it comes to his two central defender. This past week at training, he used his 2015 MLS Cup-winning Portland Timbers as an example of ideally how he would like to line up.
“Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers played basically every single game all year,” Poter said. “And I thought that was a big reason why we were one of the best defensive teams in the league because they knew each other like the back of their hand. And I think that’s very important when you look around the world. There’s not a lot of changing and rotation in those positions. Other than in compacted windows because you need that chemistry and continuity and understanding in that pairing and in the back four.”
The depth of options for the Crew is different than Porter’s previous teams though and when asked about that, Porter admitted “we know we have a lot of good options. But I’m looking for a stable back four and in, all honestly and in reflection on the past, I think there’s a little bit too much — for me — turnover.”
Porter is certainly correct in saying that Columbus has good options in central defense. The Crew’s center back stable is among one of the best in the league. Last season, the defense conceded only 45 goals in the regular season, which was among the lowest in MLS.
A large part of that success was the pair of Jonathan and Abubakar, who were the most popular duo throughout the season. Williams was also a first team regular in the rotation. Homegrown talent Alex Crognale spent a large chunk of the season on loan with Orange County SC but also broke into the rotation at times for Columbus.
A wild card thrown into last year’s rotation is the return of Sauro. The Argentinian defender came back towards the end of the year from a severe knee injury that kept him out for over nearly two seasons. Sauro brings strength, height and experience to the Crew backline. His talent was on showcase in 2015 as a key cog to a side that reached the MLS Cup final.
Having Sauro at his disposal surely poses a dilemma for Porter, he wants to have continuity on the backline but has at fou center backs who are capable starting defenders in this league. That may both be a gift and a curse for the new Crew coach.
On the positive side, the depth provides the team with the protection from injury and the ability to make tactical substitutions with the different skill sets each individual provides and allows for a deeper team in the U.S. Open Cup.
On the downside, a veteran defender like Williams, who has command and talent on the pitch, demands playing time. Rising younger players like Abubakar, Crognale and Keita all need minutes as well to continue their development.
So how can Porter tackle this dilemma?
Porter has mentioned that Keita will go on loan this season and it’s possible Crognale does again as well. The USL Championship should be a solid level of play for Crognale to get minutes and continue his development. Keita could be suited for a loan to the USL Championship or League One levels, as he is still a youngster and new to the professional game.
For the other four defenders in the Crew lineup, it isn’t out of the question to see all four make the matchday roster. To start the season, Crew fans can expect to see the duo of Mensah and Sauro start out. The tandem has been strong in an undefeated preseason for Columbus.
When healthy, Sauro is a high-quality MLS defender as he has shown in years past. With his size and athleticism, he will bring a different presence to the backline from the past two seasons.
When discussing the upcoming campaign and continuity at the center back spot Sauro was pleased with the depth and competition.
“Especially at cente rback it is better when you can play more than one game in a row,” he said. “I think that Josh, Lalas or Crognale can all do a good job because they are all good defenders. In order to defend well we need the help of everyone.”
With Porter’s philosophy and the team’s depth at center back, it will be interesting to see how the four main defenders from last season are implemented. One way could be through substitutions and rotation during heavily congested parts of the season. Another could be through the Open Cup, which isn’t something that has seemed to be a priority in season’s past.
Regardless of who lines up in the back, Crew faithful should be excited about the depth and quality of the defenders. The Mensah-Sauro duo will have a strong challenge to face this weekend in a playoff rematch against New York Red Bull. A strong performance from the pair will go a long way in the confidence of Porter and fans alike.