Fullbacks have long been key elements in Columbus Crew’s playing system. The trend that started with former head coach Gregg Berhalter continued, even if with a few tweaks, in the Caleb Porter era and it was no different in 2020.
Last year, however, the Black & Gold wide players contributed to the team’s MLS Cup-winning campaign in a distinct way. Instead of piling up a huge number of assists or insistently getting to the end line to cross the ball in the penalty box, they made their importance felt with minor contributions and solid performances when it mattered.
The five fullbacks who were part of the Crew roster in 2020 combined for just one goal and eight assists (regular season and playoffs included), but the flawless performances of Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela in the MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders showed how dependable they are for the team.
As Massive Report continues with its position-by-position roster evaluation of last year’s campaign, here are our thoughts about the squad’s fullbacks.
For the sixth year in a row, the Ghanaian was the Crew’s incumbent at the right back spot. And for the sixth year in a row, he showed the same positives and negatives in a black and gold uniform.
At 34, Afful is not as reliable physically as he’s been in the past, but he made it through the season without injuries and was rested in only two of the Black & Gold’s 27 matches in 2020. He was also the most prolific fullback on the roster from an offensive standpoint, delivering one goal and three assists, including arguably the most important of the entire season with the fantastic far post cross that set Lucas Zelarayan up to score the first goal on the Crew’s 3-0 win over the Sounders at MAPFRE Stadium to claim the title.
He was also involved in the team’s second goal that night, in which a cross he sent into the penalty box was deflected right to Zelarayan, who assisted Derrick Etienne Jr. On both plays, Afful crossed the ball from nowhere near the end line, in a clear indication of what his offensive role with the team could be in the late stage of his career – setting up his teammates from more of a deep position on the field instead of going to the end line as he used to.
On defense, the Ghanaian was the same player Crew fans got to watch in the last five years. Afful is capable of putting in some strong performances every now and then, as he did with eight tackles and interceptions in the team’s 2-1 road loss to FC Cincinnati, but he’s constantly caught out of position and seems to turn off defensively at times, making him a frequent target for opponents.
Valenzuela entered the season with a lot of uncertainty around him as, after a fantastic first season in Columbus in 2018, he missed the entirety of 2019 with a torn ACL, an injury with the potential of ruining player’s careers. Luckily, that wasn’t the case with the Argentinean, who played 23 matches in 2020, most of them at his typically high level.
Valenzuela, who is still only 22, started the season a little slow but picked up after the pandemic break. He was kept out of the first two matches of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, but returned registering a game-winning assist in the first match after his return against Atlanta United. Less than a month later, he had arguably his best match in the regular season, tallying another assist and a season-high five tackles against the Chicago Fire.
The Argentinean’s defensive game, his main assets since his arrival in MLS, followed a similar path. If at times early in the season Valenzuela seemed a little slow and far from the lockdown defender he used to be, he got back to his old form as the season progressed, as expected from someone who had such a long absence.
Valenzuela was a stud during the playoffs, averaging 3.5 tackles per match in the postseason, and completely dominated his side of the field in the final against the Sounders.
In a shortened season and one in which the team’s starting fullbacks didn’t struggle with injuries, Jimenez had fewer opportunities to step up and contribute with the Crew, but he did so in his traditional quiet and efficient fashion every time he was called upon.
The 32-year-old versatile fullback started only four of the nine matches in which he played in 2020, all of them at the left back spot, and had his best moment of the season in Crew’s 4-0 thrashing of FC Cincinnati in Orlando when he registered his only assist and played the entire 90 minutes.
The seven minutes he was on the field against the Sounders at the MLS Cup Final marked his departure after seven seasons in Columbus and even if the 383 minutes he played in 2020 were the fewer since his arrival, Jimenez will be missed for his versatility and locker room presence.
The Scottish fullback was one of the new faces on the Crew roster heading into 2020 and most fans don’t know what to make of him with the limited playing time he had last season. Cadden was expected to push Afful for the starting spot at the right back position, but that wasn’t the case with the European playing in only nine matches with only three starts.
Cadden showed some promise and his offensive game seemed to be somewhat exciting. He registered his only assist in one of the two matches he got to play the full 90 minutes, the Crew’s second match at the MLS is Back Tournament, a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.
There’s not much to say about his defensive game due to his limited time on the field, but Cadden had his best numbers on that side of the ball in his other two starts, a pair of 1-0 road losses to New York City FC and D.C. United in which he had two tackles and two interceptions and four clearances, respectively. Unfortunately, his efforts in those matches went for naught given the final results.
Crew fans might have seen the last of Cadden as there are strong rumors linking him with a return to his home country in 2021.
Francis was another returning fullback from the Crew’s 2015 campaign, but unlike Afful he didn’t have a prominent role with the team this past season. The Costa Rican played in only five matches, starting two of them and totaling 197 minutes, the lowest mark since his arrival in MLS, back in 2014, while he battled injuries.
The FIFA 2014 World Cup veteran left back played in four consecutive matches at the end of the regular season, when the Crew had already clinched its playoff berth, and went the full 90 minutes only once, against Orlando City, registering two key passes, two tackles and three clearances.
Francis recently had his contract extended for 2021 and will likely have more opportunities with Jimenez, the primary backup for the left side, now gone.