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2020 Columbus Crew season preview: Fullbacks

2020 marks a year of transition and improvement for this key position in the Crew attack and defense.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Major League Soccer season is quickly approaching and Columbus Crew SC will kick off its 25th campaign on Sunday, March 1 against New York City FC. As is the case in most offseasons, especially after an unsuccessful year like 2019 was for the Crew, there have been changes made for the Black & Gold.

As part of our preseason preview, Massive Report is going position by position, to give readers a breakdown of what to expect in the coming year. We continue in the defense with the fullbacks.

Milton Valenzuela

Valenzuela returns to the team after tearing his ACL during the 2019 preseason. In 2018, the young Argentine was one of the best left backs in all of MLS at just 19 years old.

Defensively, Valenzuela displayed much more ability than typical outside backs in the possession-oriented system utilized by former manager Gregg Berhalter. Valenzuela showed considerable skill defending attackers one-on-one and a strong knowledge of efficient defensive closeout angles.

On the attack, he turned raw potential into actual production in just one season with the club. Valenzuela was signed as a defense-first left back but his attacking and on-ball-ability was evident. The left back took that raw offensive potential and immediately converted it to production to the tune of six assists and one goal in 2018.

Valenzuela returned to training at the end of the 2019 season and has stepped into the 2020 preseason looking like the same player we saw in 2018. Having missed all of 2019, Valenzuela’s return allows the Black & Gold to plug one of the best left backs in the league into their opening day lineup. If he returns to his 2018 form as he’s shown in the preseason, Valenzuela should help the Crew have one of the strongest outside back groups in MLS.

Harrison Afful

Afful returns to Columbus for his sixth season with the Black & Gold, signing a new contract following the conclusion of 2019. The Ghanaian fullback has locked down the starting position on the right side of the Crew defensive line since joining the team during the end of 2015’s MLS Cup Finals season.

Since signing with Columbus, Afful has been one of the most prominent attacking right backs in the league, with five goals and 14 assists. Last season was a down year for Afful’s offensive production (only two assists in 22 matches) though some of that drop off can be attributed to the chunk of time he missed following a broken jaw against Atlanta United. Defensive play has never been a strong suit of Afful but his pace provides him with the ability to recover if he pushes into the attacking side of the field.

The 2019 season marks a year of transition for Afful as it does for the rest of the team. For the first time with the Black & Gold Afful finds himself in competition for a starting position with newcomer Chris Cadden. Cadden’s arrival should challenge Afful to play at his best and also provide the right back with a much-needed substitute in a position that requires covering most of the field.

Chris Cadden

Joining the cadre of new arrivals is Scottish international right back and midfielder Chris Cadden. The 23-year-old joins the Crew after signing on a free transfer in the summer of 2019 from Scottish side Motherwell. Columbus, lacking an international roster spot, sent Cadden on loan to English League One club Oxford United for the remainder of the season.

At Motherwell, Cadden mostly played in the midfield and logged more than 100 professional appearances before turning 23. Cadden dropped to the right back position on loan with Oxford, logging 22 appearances and five assists in his short stint. The young right back so impressed on his loan that Oxford United attempted to permanently sign Cadden from the Black & Gold only to be rebuffed by the Crew’s asking price (much to the consternation of Oxford manager Karl Robinson).

Crew fans have not had much opportunity to watch Cadden play but he has shown well in the few preseason matches that were streamed, logging an early assist against the New York Red Bulls. Columbus fans should expect the right back to play a similar, attack-heavy style to longtime starter Harrison Afful. Cadden won’t be expected to immediately take over the starting spot but his signing signals a desire to both find a long-term replacement for the 33-year-old Afful and provide cover should Afful miss significant time with injury as he did in 2019.

If his time at Oxford is any indication, the Black & Gold have found their right back of the future in Cadden.

Waylon Francis

Francis was immediately re-acquired by the Crew following the injury to Milton Valenzuela during the 2019 preseason. In Francis, the Columbus front office knew they had a player who was familiar with the team and wanted to return after a disappointing season with the Seattle Sounders.

Back in black and gold, Francis made 17 appearances (16 starts) in 2019 but failed to record an assist for the first time in his career. Still, the Costa Rican international displayed the familiar ability to play a well-weighted cross into the penalty box from the left side of the field.

Francis adds much more value to the team as a backup than as a starter. Should Valenzuela need a break or become injured, the Crew can plug in a familiar face who would start on many teams in MLS.

Hector Jimenez

Columbus’ Swiss Army Knife returns to the fold for his seventh season with the Black & Gold. Jimenez is one of the most versatile players in all of MLS and has lined up at nearly every position on the field during his career with the Crew.

In 2019, Jimenez appeared 19 times for Columbus with starts on the left and right as well as a long spell replacing the injured Harrison Afful. Jimenez contributed one goal and four assists before he was injured against the San Jose Earthquakes in August of 2019.

With Milton Valenzuela returning to full health and Chris Cadden joining the team, Jimenez takes the third spot on the right back depth chart and will compete for playing time on the left side with Waylon Francis. The newfound depth in Columbus might lead Jimenez to record one of his lowest appearance totals with the team but he will always be prepared to step into a spot when needed.

Josh Williams

Fan-favorite Josh Williams will spend most of his time at center back but will remain the emergency backup option on the left and the right. In 2019, Williams spent three matches at right back and saw one appearance as a sub on the left.

Williams lacks the pace of the other outside back options but does play well with the ball at his feet. With the depth on the Crew, Williams will hopefully not be called into action as an outside back. If he is utilized on the outside then it’s likely that the team has suffered some unfortunate injury luck. Luckily, Williams can provide solid defense and serviceable offense if called on.