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2022 Crew season preview: Fullback

It is the changing of the guard at fullback this season for the Black & Gold.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

As the Columbus Crew enters the team’s 27th season, the group does with a very different fullback lineup than last season. A long-time starter at right back Harrison Afful is now with Charlotte FC and left back Milton Valenzuela could not agree on a new contract with the Crew and sound up in Switzerland.

That means the Black & Gold will have a very different feel to the outside of the defense in 2022. While there are some familiar faces, there is also a sense of newness with both fullback spots.

Let’s take a look at the position heading into the year for Columbus.

Pedro Santos

Santos, a longtime winger for the Crew, is now a fullback. Due to injuries to Valenzuela and Waylon Francis last year, head coach Caleb Porter needed someone he could trust on the backline. Enter Santos.

The winger turned emergency defender has now landed the starting left back role in his sixth season with the Black & Gold. Santos played a variety of different positions in 2021. Of his 32 games, 11 were at left back for at least part of the contest. One of those games was the 2-0 victory against Cruz Azul for the Campeones Cup.

There are a couple of reasons to be optimistic about Santos at left back. The Portuguese is a proven goal contributor, with four goals and six assists in 2021. Coming from a deeper-lying position, Santos’ rocket of a left foot often is on target from outside the penalty box. While playing winger, Santos gave great defensive effort, which is why Porter trusts him in this position.

One concern is Santos is used to playing with someone behind him, this allows him to make riskier challenges. Cruz Azul was able to take advantage of this to get players free on the wing.

With a full preseason at left back, experience and game tape to look back on, however, expect a good season from Santos.

Steven Moreira

The French right back enters his first full season with the Crew. In his seven games in 2021, after arriving in the summer, Moreira impressed with three assists, the ability to dribble out of tight spaces and crossing. Moreira, who came to Columbus from French side Toulouse, will look to build on last year’s success.

Missing the playoffs was a disappointment for the Black & Gold in 2021 and a major reason for that was the lack of production on the wings. Moreira will need to make quick work to develop a partnership with new winger Yaw Yeboah. Early signs in the preseason were promising. Lucas Zelarayan’s goal against the Charleston Battery was created due to Moriera and Yeboah’s play down the right. Production and good link-up play on the wings will be massive for the Crew.

Will Sands

Sands is the twin brother of U.S. international midfielder James Sands who recently went on loan from New York City FC to Rangers in Scotland. The Crew acquired Sands’ Homegrown rights from NYCFC this offseason after he played at Georgetown from 2019-21, helping the Hoyas win the national title in 2019. Sands was voted an All-Big East First Team selection in 2021.

For the Crew, Sands will occupy the primary backup role to Santos at left back. Sands started the match against Charlotte FC in the Carolina Challenge Cup, helping to earn a clean sheet. While Sands’ defensive abilities will help the Crew, he will need to grow in confidence on the attack.

Fortunately, he has time. Santos is the first choice left back, but is turning 34 this season. The hope is Sands will be the left back of the future.

Jake Morris

Jake (22) is the older brother of Columbus midfielder Aidan Morris (20). Like Sands, the Black & Gold acquired Morris’ Homegrown rights from the Seattle Sounders this offseason. Also, like Sands, Morris opted to play college soccer before arriving in Columbus. He joins his brother after playing at Campbell University from 2020-21 as a winger. Morris had seven goals and nine assists in 28 appearances and prior was part of the Sounders Academy.

Similar to Sands, Morris is a depth piece at the fullback position. Fans should not expect to see much of the newcomer for the first team this year. It might be beneficial for Morris to play for Crew 2, especially as he transitions from winger to fullback. If Morris is sent down to Crew 2, the senior team will have minimal depth at the fullback position.

Other Crew 2022 positional previews

Attackers

Midfielders

Wingers