The Columbus Crew made another splash in the 2022 offseason on Monday when the club announced the signing of Milos Degenek on a free transfer. The 27-year-old Australian defender joins the Crew after most recently playing for Serbian side Red Star Belgrade, in addition to stints with 1860 Munich, Al Hilal and Yokohama F. Marinos. Degenek has also been capped 33 times for the Australian National Team.
Degenek fills a huge offseason need for the Black & Gold as a long-term solution to the center back position after the departures of Aboubacar Keita, Vito Wormgoor and Grant Lilliard following the 2021 season. Degenek is a decided upgrade at the position for Columbus, as the team looks to bounce back from a disappointing last campaign.
Here’s what Crew fans can expect from Degenek and how it can help the Black & Gold win more games in 2022.
As expected from a central defender with experience in the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup, Degenek is an excellent defender. A destroyer of sorts, Degenek specializes in breaking up opposing attacks in a variety of ways. The Australian is an adept 1 v. 1 defender, both centrally and when isolated in wide areas of the field. In addition, Degenek’s ability to read the game and anticipate his opponent's moves before they happen help him to be an effective pass interceptor and shot blocker.
Physically, Degenek is relatively tall at 6-foot-2 but is deceptively quick, allowing him to cover a lot of ground on the backline. Degenek is often seen routinely defending plays when pulled out into wide positions as well as when the play is stretched behind him.
Lastly, Degenek has a great understanding of the game and his team’s tactical defending plan, allowing him to routinely disrupt attacks thanks to his defensive positioning. He will be a welcome addition to a defense that struggled in 2021 and his ability to defend well even in difficult situations will provide a sense of security and safety to fans and players alike.
Obviously, being a good defender is priority number one as a center back, but Degenek brings even more to the table.
Degenek uses every inch of his frame to be a force in the air. On film, Degenek can be seen easily and routinely winning aerial challenges with his opponent and clearing the ball to safety with his head.
The defender also has the ability to create and finish goal scoring chances at the other end of the field. When paired with Crew captain Jonathan Mensah, Columbus will have two of the most imposing aerial challenges in the MLS as their center backs. The Black & Gold should be able to turn this into both security at the defensive end of the field, as well as dangerous attacks in front of goal.
Defensively, the Crew struggled last season dealing with crosses, both from the run of play and from set pieces. Two aerial powers on the backline should go a long way in solving that problem. In addition, Columbus needs to continue to look for ways to be more productive from attacking set pieces, aside from Lucas Zelarayan’s direct free kicks. Adding another aerial threat to look for inside the 18-yard box could lead to more dangerous opportunities for the Crew in 2022.
A final note on Degenek, who played some as a central midfielder early in his career, is that Columbus has added an accomplished passer to the backline in 2022. He has regularly shown the ability to hit long, short and intermediate passes into the central and wide channels of the field throughout his career. Perhaps even more impressive than his ability to hit these passes is the vision and knowledge he possesses that allows him to break down opposing defenses with one swift pass.
Degenek is also very comfortable beating defenders off the dribble when under pressure. The center back does this as a means of progressing the ball in the central channel, as well as to avoid and beat pressure applied by his opponents. Degenek’s ability to help the Crew in possession is a massive upgrade in this position, as the Black & Gold center backs regularly struggled to help progress the ball up the field last year, which is a must in Caleb Porter’s tactical plan.
By adding Degenek, Columbus has simultaneously improved its defensive ability as well as the ability to start attacks by incisively progressing the ball up the field to the playmakers.
There is a lot to be excited about with the addition of Degenek and Crew fans can expect to see a lot of the Australian right from the start in 2022. As always, fans should be cautious as there is always a big adjustment period for players new to the MLS, especially defenders. However, once Degenek gets his feet underneath him, the Black & Gold could have one of the best center back pairings in the league.