There’s no hiding the fact that Columbus Crew SC had a down year in Major League Soccer in 2019. In addition to missing out on a chance on the state goal of the MLS Cup by virtue of missing the playoffs, Columbus finished 20th overall in the League’s standings. This mark was the team’s worst finish since the 2016 season, an 18th-place finish.
Things were far from roses and rainbows in head coach Caleb Porter’s first year in Columbus. In all fairness, the Black & Gold dealt with a bevy of issues that would make any coaching staff struggle. At the forefront of these issues was a depleted position that is going to be crucial to both the future plans and potential success of Porter at the helm. That position is at the outside backs.
In 2019, the downward spiral at the position started when starting left back Milton Valenzuela went down in the preseason with an ACL tear that kept him sidelined for the entire season. From there, it only got worse. On the other side, starting right back Harrison Afful suffered a fractured jaw on April 1 that kept him on the sideline — and prevented him from eating solid food — for 64 days, missing 11 games in the process. This injury left Porter with Hector Jimenez and Waylon Francis as the only reliable options left at the outside back position.
As pieces all across the field fell, it didn’t take long too for Waylon Francis to take a hit as well. The Costa Rican went down with a knee injury on July 22 that kept him out 11 games. It was a stretch where the Black & Gold certainly could have used Francis, as the team was in an uphill battle for the remaining playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
In far too many instances, Porter saw himself left at a crossroads; having to deploy center back Josh Williams out on the right side or calling upon inexperienced Conner Maloney. Neither of these moves was ideal, nor were these players expected to play in these roles coming into the year.
The 2020 season looks much brighter already. With the return of Valenzuela (who has been playing consistently in the preseason to the pleasure of Crew fans), as well as Afful, Jimenez and Francis are all healthy, the Crew now has options at fullback on both sides of the field. In addition, the Black & Gold brought in Chris Cadden back in July who has been playing on loan at English League One side Oxford United. In 21 appearances for Oxford before the end of his loan, the 23 year-old Cadden averaged 87 minutes played per game and registered five assists.
Playing primarily as a right back but also in central midfield, Cadden had spent most of his career in the Scottish Premiership, the top flight division in Scotland, with Motherwell. In 139 appearances there, he registered 12 goals and added 21 assists.
While most of the Black & Gold look to be retooled and reloaded just in time for the start of the 2020 season, the outside back position (barring another injury bug) looks primed for a breakout campaign.