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Grading the 2022 Crew: Defenders

How the Black & Gold’s backline performed during this past season.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2022 Major League Soccer season in the books for the Columbus Crew, Massive Report is reflecting back on the year that was. We started by first looking at the goalkeepers and handing out grades for that position. Now we move on to the defenders.

This was a defensive line that saw a number of players play/start due to rotation and injury. When the Black & Gold had their best back four group, the team was strong defensively, but that didn’t happen as much as Columbus would like.

Let’s dive into grading the Crew’s defenders from 2022.

Left back

Players considered: Pedro Santos and Will Sands

The left back spot might be a fan favorite for the Black & Gold, who had two players on opposite sides of their respective careers, but both were impactful for Columbus this year.

Santos moved to left back ahead of the 2022 campaign and seamlessly slotted into the position. Often considered one of the best attacking left backs in the league, Santos was exceptional going forward for the Crew this past season.

Sands made his mark, making his debut midseason when filling in for the injured Santos. The Black & Gold acquired Sands’ Homegrown rights from New York City FC last offseason and the rookie played well when called upon. Sands played in 12 matches, making five starts, for Columbus and registered one assist.

While both left backs played well throughout 2022, neither Santos nor Sands were adept at handling balls in the air. As mentioned when speaking about the team’s goalkeeper goalkeepers, the Crew faced a good amount of crosses this year but didn’t always have the defenders to deal with these incoming balls. In addition, teams were often able to target the Black & Gold’s left backs with long diagonal balls meant to expose this weakness and allow the opponents to put pressure on the Columbus backline and move into the attacking third.

Left back grade: B

Center back

Players Considered: Jonathan Mensah, Milo’s Degenek, Josh Williams, Jalil Anibaba and Phillip Quinton

The Crew largely rotated between Mensah, Williams and Degenek at center back for most of the 2022 campaign, with a few appearances from Anibaba. Quinten, on the other hand, emerged as an exciting prospect with Crew 2 as a rookie.

Two things that the Black & Gold struggled with all year were crosses played into the penalty box and defending late-game leads. A large portion of the responsibility in these two areas belonged to the center backs.

Mensah and Degenek are high-level players who Columbus asked a lot of in and out of possession. The main job of the center backs however was to be the last line of defense and organize the rest of the defense in conjunction with the goalkeeper. Mensah won his fair share of aerial duels throughout the year but the Crew struggled to defend both the first and second balls off of crosses. Degenek, who was acquired ahead of the 2022 season, had a mediocre first year in the league and should be expected to improve as he adjusts to MLS going forward.

Williams played in 23 games this year, making 15 starts, and brought his usual energy and leadership to the group when on the field. He continues to play well despite being 34, although injuries continued to be an issue and he contributed, like Mensah and Degenek, to the Black & Gold’s two major issues defensively.

Anibaba played in a career-low five games this year and didn’t contribute much positively or negatively to Columbus’ defense.

A SuperDraft pick, Quinton spent his rookie season with the reserve team and was a mainstay on Crew 2’s championship run in MLS NEXT Pro. Quinton still has a ways to go, however, to prove he’s ready to step up to the MLS level.

Center back grade: B-

Right back

Players Considered: Steven Moreira, Mohamed Farsi, Jake Morris and Marlon Hairston

The Crew’s right backs had a successful 2022 season. Moreira played the lion's share of the minutes (2,786) at right back this year and was among the best in MLS at the position. Moreira showed to be an excellent 1 v. 1 defender and did a good job maintaining his individual defensive shape within the team's defensive structure. He is also more than capable of joining in on the Black & Gold attack when needed by making late overlapping runs to support the wingers in the attacking third and to play crosses into the 18-yard box.

Moreira showed an ability to move the ball into the attacking third by dribbling forward from his right back position this year. He contributed five assist and one (very) important goal for Columbus in 2022, even finding himself in and around the penalty box at times.

Hairston, Farsi and Morris served as depth at both outside back spots for the Crew. Farsi was a bright spot with Crew 2 and the first team thanks to his solid defensive ability and his attacking prowess. Hairston played in three matches this year after 16 appearances in 2021 but made little impact moving back to right back.

Right back grade: B