Wednesday, the Columbus Crew announced the team’s roster decisions following the 2021 Major League Soccer regular season. In the list of names staying and leaving, one area of the field looks especially light: the backline.
Columbus had difficulties defending in 2021, center backs and fullbacks alike. How the defensive positions go, so do the Crew – defensively and offensively.
Roster decisions left just five players on the team defensively. A club source told Massive Report that goalkeeper Eloy Room will return. The remaining four include defensive staples and a new name that impressed in a short period of time.
Captain Jonathan Mensah signed a multi-year deal in October 2020, so he’s going nowhere in 2022, which is a good thing. Mensah stays relatively healthy. In 2021, the Ghanian started 28 matches, missing games only for international duty and a late injury that kept him out of the regular season finale victory against the Chicago Fire.
Throughout 2021, Mensah led all Crew center backs in blocked shots and led the entire team in interceptions and clearances. Mensah even added two goals on the offensive side of the field.
Joining Mensah is Josh Williams. Not just a fan favorite for his connection to the supporter community, but Williams is a key player on defense. In 2020, when now-former Columbus center back Vito Wormgoor went down with a season-ending ankle injury, Williams went from veteran backup to starting pairing alongside Mensah. Their partnership led to the Crew’s second MLS Cup.
In 2021, Williams fought injury issues, starting only 14 matches with 18 appearances. Not all those absences were injury related though. Wormgoor stayed healthy and began playing better in the final weeks of the season. This caused some selection-based absences for the MLS veteran Williams.
Keeping Williams around for 2022 is important on the field and in the locker room, but Columbus will need to shore up the center back position this offseason.
Joining Mensah and Williams is 21-year-old Aboubacar Keita. The Homegrown product has been in the Crew first team since 2019, but even with chances on the field, hasn’t proven himself to head coach Caleb Porter as a consistent starter.
In 2021, Keita started just 10 matches, missing no time for injury. Although his time on the field was brief compared to his peers, he still led Black & Gold center backs in blocked passes. As a Homegrown player, Keita continues to have a place with the team, but it’s fair to ask how much time is enough to see Keita cement himself as an MLS starting center back.
From 2020-2021, the Crew’s goals against average jumped from 0.91 goals allowed to 1.32. A big reason for that is consistency. Columbus’ injuries at the position led to five different players receiving MLS minutes, including midfielder Liam Fraser.
Returning to their strong defensive form means having the pieces that can handle the season-long marathon of matches. If the 31 and 33-year olds Mensah and Williams can’t do that, the Black & Gold need to look for new names at center back.
The lightest part of the field after roster updates is at fullback. The Crew currently has one player at this position on the roster: 2021 newcomer Steven Moreira. The Ligue 1 veteran made his first start in the Campeones Cup, having not played a single minute prior to the match. That start alone showed Porter’s confidence in Moreira that followed him through the final months of the season. Offensively, Moreira tied all other fullbacks with a team-high three assists in only seven matches.
Outside of Moreira, there are two chances for player returns at the position, with different levels of likelihood. Milton Valenzuela is the most likely to return, with the Crew extending a contract offer to the Argentinian. In 2021, Valenzuela had a difficult season, providing no assists or goals on offense and making only 14 appearances. Injuries plagued another season for the 23 year old, but the upside is worth it if Valenzuela stays healthy.
The other name still floating around the team is veteran Harrison Afful. The Ghanian’s productivity has dipped in recent years but moving to a substitute role suited the 35 year old in the second half of the season. With the addition of Moreira, and an offer extended to Valenzuela, Afful will need to settle for a cut in his role on the field and in pay.
On top of Wormgoor’s exit, are two defenders that played substantial minutes in Columbus’ injury-ridden 2021. Saad Abdul-Salaam and Waylon Francis each exit the team. Although neither provided much offensive spark, the two came in when Black & Gold needed players on the field. The Crew signed Abdul-Salaam early in the season and he started seven matches, appearing in 18. Francis, a Columbus and MLS veteran, played in 23 matches.
The Black & Gold must look at the fullback position as an area of focus in the offseason. For all the talk about the Crew’s offense lacking, don’t forget the role the fullbacks play. A total of six assists from the position in 34 games isn’t enough for this team to reach its goals.