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2020 Columbus Crew season preview: Center backs

If they stay healthy, can the defenders be the best in the league?

Columbus Crew SC v FC Cincinnati Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In 2019, Columbus Crew SC went through a carousel of different center back pairings. Injuries, loans and green MLS talent led to an inconsistent defense, but only on the team sheet. The team’s depth at the position left the group at fourth-best for the least amount of goals conceded in the Eastern Conference and No. 8 overall.

In our next installment of position previews, Massive Report looks at the new group of Crew center backs, a combination of existing talent, new names and maybe the next Black & Gold captain?

Jonathan Mensah

A staple of the Crew’s backline for the past three seasons returns in what may be his first year as team captain. An idea that was unthought of during his initial struggles adjusting to Major League Soccer. In the 77 career Crew matches, Mensah has grown to be a team and supporter favorite with his on-field consistency.

Mensah missed 10 matches last year due to a knee injury, roster decisions and Ghana National Team work, but still led the club’s defensive backline in matches played, starts and minutes played. His results on the field eclipsed those of his center back peers and he was awarded the team’s Defender of the Year.

The 2020 season will bring a new challenge for the Ghanaian international as he will be tasked with bringing two new center backs into the fold, one who has never played in an MLS match. The reason he could get in the captain’s armband conversation is because of his strength in leadership off the field too. Helping Vito Wormgoor and Axel Sjoberg get up to speed with Caleb Porter’s system will be high on the defensive priority list.

If Mensah’s form continues from the past two seasons, and the center back rotation stays healthy, this club has no reason to think that they cannot compete for the strongest defense in the league.

Josh Williams

Williams looks to rebound from a rough injury-ridden 2019. A favorite of Crew supporters, Williams missed over half of the season because of a foot injury, a muscle injury and concussion. Williams is in the last year of his contract and a healthy season will only help his value rise.

The Northeast Ohio native played well when he was on the field. He played in the second-highest number of matches at the center back position. In addition, he tied former Crew fan-favorite Gaston Sauro with two goals on the season, both helping the Crew secure three points.

Competition is the trend for the second center back position and Williams has the league experience to position himself well. His versatility on the backline is something that Porter flexed last year when he was used as a right back in three matches. Continued versatility and a healthy season should see Williams get solid minutes.

Aboubacar Keita

The youngest defender on Crew had a whirlwind 2019 campaign. After preseason, he was loaned to USL League One’s Richmond Kickers, where an injury left him without much playing time. Despite that, Keita was chosen for the United States’ Under-20 World Cup roster. He stood out in the tournament and started each game.

With injuries to Mensah and Williams, Keita found his way into the starting rotation soon after his return from the World Cup. After losing his first start on July 3 against Real Salt Lake, Keita did not lose another match in which he started, gaining points in his remaining seven starts.

The Homegrown defender has a bright future ahead of him with the Crew and will have the chance to learn from the club’s strong veteran presence at the position. We should find out soon if he gets loaned out for more playing time or if he is a viable option to play in the rotation.

Vito Wormgoor

One offseason signing receiving a lot of attention is 31-year-old Vito Wormgoor. The former Dutch youth international joins the Crew from Norwegian top-flight club SK Brann, where Wormgoor captained the club for three seasons.

Wormgoor brings a big stature to the club and a highlight reel of tackles. He will bring a lot of energy and confidence to the backline and isn’t afraid to go for tackles in the penalty box if it means stopping a goal. With that said, he doesn’t do it recklessly, with no red cards in the past five seasons.

MLS: 2020 MLS Headshots USA TODAY Sports

Wormgoor can contribute on offense as well. He was responsible for a handful of assists in his time with Brann and converted four out of five from the penalty spot last season. His pass to an under-pressure Artur led to the only goal allowed against the Houston Dynamo in the Crew’s final preseason match, but we will chalk it up to being up big.

He is going to bring needed consistency to the club, regarding avoiding injury. Wormgoor has played over 2,000 minutes per season in each of the past three years. If this trend continues, and he can adapt to MLS and his teammates quickly, it can give Crew supporters a more predictable defensive setup from match to match.

Adapting to MLS play will be something to watch. Wormgoor has played first-tier soccer in the Netherlands and Norway, so his ability is not in question. The concern is the added travel. Lucky for the Crew this season, they only go to the West Coast twice: the Seattle Sounders on March 7 and the Portland Timbers on July 1. With the growing amount of expansion clubs, most travel is confined to east of the Mississippi River.

Wormgoor and Mensah received substantial minutes against Phoenix Rising, in what many believed to be a test run of the March 1 st starting 11. Both defenders come in at a strong 6-foot-2 and should be an unwelcome sight in the eyes of opposing offenses in 2020.

Axel Sjöberg

A signing that has gone under the radar is the towering 6-foot-7 Sjöberg. Sjöberg was signed off waivers in early December. The former 2016 finalist for MLS Defender of the Year has had a tumultuous few years with the Colorado Rapids.

Sjöberg has not been able to play at least 20 matches in a season for the past three years. Some of that lack of playing time can be attributed to injury as surgery left him out for 10 matches in 2017. In 2018, a new coach and system left him on the outside of the starting 11. In 2019, he played 434 minutes, only playing three minutes as a sub, since mid-May.

General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko was able to bring Sjöberg into the squad with relatively little risk. The Swedish-born player has his Green Card and therefore does not count as an international player. Columbus is also reportedly paying him only $179,996.00, which, if he can return to 2016 form, will pay dividends, long and short term.

Sjöberg has a lot of competition in this group of defenders, but he does bring an element of offense that can be useful as both a defensive and offensive substitute. His height can come in handy with the club’s fullbacks whipping in crosses to the penaly box.

The Crew is looking to provide a strong foundation with this group of center backs in front of goalkeeper Eloy Room. If the on-field defending improves with a consistent pairing, and the club begins to find the back of the net, it is going to be an exciting year for supporters and the club alike.