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Defensive depth carries the Crew to the top of the East

Despite frequent rotation in the backline, the Black & Gold have managed to sustain their solidness

MLS: New England Revolution at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Defense has been arguably the main strength of Columbus Crew SC on the young 2019 Major League Soccer season. The Black & Gold have conceded just four goals in six matches and ended the sixth week of the regular season with the second most efficient backline in the entire league, just behind the Seattle Sounders, which have three goals against in five games.

The Crew’s defensive success, however, defies one of the most popular sayings in soccer, which states that the best backlines are the ones which get continuity. For a number of reasons, including injuries and international call-ups, head coach Caleb Porter has been forced to use four different defensive lineups already. However, except for the 3-0 road loss to the Philadelphia Union, the changes didn’t impact the team’s defensive performance.

The Black & Gold started preseason with Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Gaston Sauro and Milton Valenzuela as the team’s starting back four. Last Saturday, against the New England Revolution, the Crew secured its fourth clean sheet with Hector Jimenez, Jonathan, Josh Williams and Waylon Francis in front of goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that all of them, except from Francis, who was a Crew player between 2014 and 2017 before returning earlier this year, were with the club in 2018. The result propelled the team to the top of the Eastern Conference, with 13 points from four wins, one tie and one loss.

“I thought we looked incredible defensively, front to back,” Williams, who scored the game-winning goal against the Revs, said after the match. “I think this organization wanted a backline, and I think that this defense might be the deepest part of our team. We have a lot of guys with experience, and whoever is called upon that week I feel like has done a great job of preparing for each game, and that’s for everybody.”

The team’s defensive strength is also reinforced by a couple of noticeable achievements. For starters, the Black & Gold lead the league in clean sheets, only conceding goals in two of their six matches. Steffen, who didn’t play against the Union, has last picked up a ball from the back of his net in the season opener, when the Crew tied 1-1 with the New York Red Bulls, on March 2. He hasn’t conceded a goal since, going 444 minutes of consecutive shutouts.

Another interesting aspect of the Crew’s defensive stability is that the team has accomplished this level solely based on team performance, not individual sparks. According to WhoScored.com, the Black & Gold rank essentially in the middle of the pack in the most relevant defensive stats – ninth in shots allowed per game (10.8), 10th in tackles (18.7) and seventh in interceptions (12.3). Also, no Crew player figures in the top team of the individual stats for tackles, interceptions, clearances or blocks.

The defensive performance has been good enough to offset perhaps the team’s most noticeable struggle so far, it’s offensive power. With just seven goals scored in 2019, the Black & Gold are just the 16th best offensive team in the league but still managed to reach the top of the East. And don’t forget that three of those goals were scored by defenders.

Okay, but how far can the Crew’s defensive strength carry the team? Well, Porter hopes that very, very far.

“In soccer, defending is half the battle and we’re a good defensive team and we’ll find our goals,” Porter explained. “I’ve never seen a good team that’s not good defensively. Especially championship teams, they’re always good defensively. You’re not outscoring teams every game, that’s unrealistic. And again, this team in the past hasn’t scored a lot of goals, so we’re going to have to be good defensively.”