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2021 Crew season preview: Defenders

The Black & Gold backline should be strong again this season.

With a dominant 5-0 victory in the CONCACAF Champions League series and a 0-0 draw against the Philadelphia Union to open the 2021 Major League Soccer season already in the books for the Columbus Crew, there is a lot of excitement as the 2020 MLS Cup Champions get the new year underway

As our team preview, Massive Report continues going position by position and give readers a breakdown of what to expect in the coming year. Next up is a review of the defenders.

Jonathan Mensah

If you watched any of Columbus’ 2020 MLS season, the Crew team captain really needs no introduction. Over the past four seasons, Mensah has 100 regular season appearances (97 starts) at center back for the Black & Gold and 2020 was no different with 23 appearances, all starts, in the center of defense and four starts in the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs.

Mensah, a finalist for MLS’s 2020 Defender of the Year, is one of the first names on the team sheet and will continue to be ever-present in 2021, constantly clearing balls out of the back and organizing and setting up the rest of the Columbus backline.

Harrison Afful

Afful is back for another year with Columbus. In 2020, Afful made 21 regular season appearances, with 20 of them coming at right back for the club. This will be the seventh season in Columbus for the 34 year old who, when healthy has been a consistent presence for the club.

This was no more apparent than his four starts in four playoff games last season for the team, where he also racked up one assist in the postseason. Although Derrick Etienne Jr. filled in at right back in the first leg of the Champions League, look for Afful to be the consistent starter when available.

This is one area of the field where there is a lack of depth for Columbus, so if Afful suffers a long-term injury, Columbus Crew fans may see more of Derrick Etienne Jr. on the right side of the defense.

Milton Valenzuela

Valenzuela began 2021 as the starting left back for the Crew after a great bounce-back campaign. After missing the entirety of the 2019 season due to an ACL tear, the Argentine played 19 games (17 starts) at left back in 2020 and followed it up with four starts in the MLS Cup playoffs.

Look for the speedy left back to track up and down the field for the Black & Gold, driving into opposing defenses and looking to cross the ball for Columbus’ attacking players.

Josh Williams

The Copley, Ohio native played an important role for the Crew in 2020. With the injury to Vito Wormgoor, Williams was called upon to partner Mensah in the center of the defense, specifically toward the end of the year with 12 regular season appearances (11 starts) and four of the four MLS playoff starts for the Black & Gold, including the MLS Cup Final.

Williams, who has spent nine of his twelve MLS seasons with Columbus, projects to be the third-choice center back when Wormgoor returns to 100 percent. Either way, look for Williams to make appearances in Champions League or U.S. Open Cup matches once the team is at full strength.

Vito Wormgoor

Entering the 2020 season, Wormgoor was set to partner with Mensah at center back and started two of the first three games of the season for the Crew. This, however, ended early on due to an ankle injury that required surgery and resulted in Wormgoor being out for the entirety of the 2020 season.

Wormgoor has been training but the Black & Gold didn’t want to rush the Dutch center back back to play after such a significant injury. Worgoor played his entire career before coming to MLS either in his native Holland or in Norway.

Waylon Francis

Francis made four regular season appearances in 2020 and came on as a substitute in the MLS Cup. Of these appearances, Francis had two starts as left back for the Crew.

This is Francis’ seventh year with Columbus over the last eight (Francis spent 2018 with the Seattle Sounders), and this past year was one in which he had the least involvement during his whole time with the Black & Gold. Francis looks to be a depth option for the Crew again this season anding more experience to the team.

Marlon Hairston

Although Hairston can play anywhere on the right side of the field, he was brought to Columbus to play as a right back.

In his career, Hairston has made 116 appearances, starting 77 of them, in the regular season action, while scoring seven goals and providing 13 assists over his seven-year MLS career. Hairston spent most of his career with the Colorado Rapids but came to the Black & Gold from Minnesota United, where he only played nine games last year. During his time in Minnesota, he played multiple positions, including in central midfield.

Hairston is seen as a bit of a project for the Crew, working full time at right back for the first time. If all goes as planned, Hairston could be the long-term replacement for Afful.

Aboubacar Keita

Keita is starting his third season for the Black & Gold. The Crew Academy graduate and Homegrown Player who was signed in 2019 made 11 regular season appearances (10 of them at center back) for Columbus in 2020.

Heading into 2021, a lot of Black & Gold supporters hope that Keita can continue to grow in his role in the center of defense given his comparatively young age (21 years old) and that Keita will be able to get more game time at center back.

Grant Lilliard

The Crew added some depth to the center of defense when the team acquired defender Lillard via a trade with Inter Miami last year in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. This is Lillard’s third MLS team after signing with the Chicago Fire in 2018 as a Homegrown Player and then spent part of 2020 with Miami.

With only 12 appearances in his MLS career, Lillard does not have a large sample size in MLS, but now more than six months in Columbus, Lillard will hope to make an impact off the bench in case of injury or schedule congestion.

Saad Abdul-Salaam

The Black & Gold already had good depth along the backline, but were able to add more via free agency on April 17. The Crew signed veteran defender Abdul-Salaam, who has six years of MLS experience after playing at Akron from 2012-14. Abdul-Salaam has traditionally been an outside back or wide midfielder but played center back at points during the 2019 MLS Cup-winning year with the Sounders.

With Columbus, Abdul-Salaam will see most of his time at right back as a natural backup to Afful. His versatility, however, means he can help out at other spots.

Massive Report’s previous position previews: