The word “unprecedented” has been thrown around a lot in 2020, with Major League Soccer transforming its season to fit into a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. It was a difficult and unprecedented year. Through it all, the Columbus Crew was able to deal with injuries, a lengthy medically unable to play list and a condensed schedule to end the season by lifting the MLS Cup.
Massive Report is looking back at Columbus’ 2020 performance position by position. Today, we look at the center backs, which were a key piece to bringing home a second-ever MLS Cup title.
Here are the center backs that elevated the Crew among its MLS competition.
The accolades for Mensah’s 2020 season are well known. The center back finished third in defender of the year voting, was selected to the 2020 MLS Best XI and played every minute of every match for the Black & Gold.
With Mensah as captain, Columbus had a six-match point streak, 13 shutouts on the season and two stretches where the team went for more than 300 minutes between goals allowed with one of those stretches coming in the final three matches of the MLS Cup playoffs and MLS Cup Final. Throughout an injury-created revolving door in the midfield and at goalkeeper, Columbus only gave up 0.85 goals per 90 minutes.
The defensive accolades stretch to Mensah individually too, where led the Crew in both blocks and clearances in 2020.
Offensively, Mensah is not often key for Columbus, but his one tick on the scoresheet came when the Black & Gold needed it the most. This came in the 59th minute of the Eastern Conference Final, assisting on the game-winning goal to in the 1-0 victory that put the Black & Gold in the MLS Cup Final.
Williams knew that he wasn’t guaranteed a starting position in 2020. The 32-year-old MLS veteran brought 160 league matches across three teams into the new year but understood the work needed if he was going to start over the competition with other, younger players on the Crew’s roster.
While Mensah captained and ran the defense, Williams played his support role. In his 1,411 minutes on the field, Columbus only allowed 13 goals. His 0.83 goal allowed per 90 minutes with Mensah ranked best among any center back pairing.
In situations where the offense took advantage of a Crew defensive lapse, Williams was in the right spots, ready to fill in space and clean up messes. The well-disciplined defender, who only received one yellow card caution all year, brought an element of on-field consistency in a season that was anything but.
Near the end of the year, Williams served a four-match suspension for violating league rules. He returned for the final regular season match of the season, a 2-1 victory over Atlanta United that gave Columbus at least one home match in the playoffs. His work continued for the last 390 minutes of the season where he never came off the field during the playoff run, winning Columbus its second MLS Cup, and the first for the Akron, Ohio native.
After a breakout rookie season that showed that Keita was capable of playing center back at the MLS level, there were high expectations coming into 2020. Despite the signing of Vito Wormgoor ahead of the season, the Homegrown defender expected to continue his development
But like most of 2020, things didn’t go as expected. Keita stepped into the starting position when Wormgoor left the MLS is Back Tournament. The young center back played opposite Mensah in three of the four tournament matches, starting the final two. It appeared that he was on track to develop through minutes on the field.
Once the Phase 1 restart began, head coach Caleb Porter opted to start Williams over the 20-year-old Keita. In the first 10 matches of the congested season, Keita saw the field just twice, including a 1-0 loss to New York City FC where a poor pass by Keita turned into the lone goal of the match. Keita, however, did start six of the final seven regular season matches with Williams out with a suspension.
While Keita did not log any playoff playing time, he eclipsed his minutes played with the Crew from 2019 and showed flashes of why he is highly thought of at such a young age.
Wormgoor was signed by the Crew on Dec. 18, 2019, adding an experienced European defender that would help improve a strong defense from the year prior. Wormgoor brought a highlight reel of hard tackles and commanding defense. The Crew expected a promising combination of Wormgoor and Mensah in the middle of the backline.
Unfortunately, Columbus supporters did not get to see much of that combo. Wormgoor began the season as the starter, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury 17 minutes into the first MLS is Back Tournament match against FC Cincinnati.
After only 107 total minutes with Columbus, he still gave a strong first impression in 2021.
On Aug. 14, the Crew traded a 2021 MLS Draft third-round pick to Inter Miami FC for 25-year-old center back Grant Lillard. The former Indiana Hoosier did not log any minutes with Miami or Columbus in 2020 but was included on the bench for five matches in black and gold.