There are a lot of moving parts on a soccer field that make a difference in match results. It’s difficult to blame one specific area but comparing the Columbus Crew’s 2020 MLS Cup season with 2021’s failure, one difference was clear: the defense.
In 2020, a stout Black & Gold backline held opponents to 21 goals in 23 games and managed a shutout against the Seattle Sounders in a 3-0 MLS Cup Final victory. Compare that to 2021, when the Crew conceded 1.32 goals allowed per match in a season that saw Columbus one-point out of the playoffs.
The Black & Gold struggled to stay healthy, forcing five different center backs to earn minutes, one of those being a midfielder. In 2022, the Crew made moves to ensure that the defense returns to championship form.
Let’s take a look at Columbus’ 2022 center backs.
The Crew released or traded all but two center backs after the 2021 season. Aboubacar Keita, Vito Wormgoor and Grant Lillard all exchanged Black & Gold for new club colors. A piece of replacing those was the signing of MLS veteran Jalil Anibaba.
Columbus supporters saw Anibaba’s work during the Carolina Challenge Cup. Although he started only one of the three matches in Charleston, South Carolina, Anibaba came up big when called upon with a goal-line clearance
Anibaba is likely to come off the bench and provide stability in defense. Whether that’s as a substitute to close out a match or fill in for injuries or international duty, Anibaba knows his role on the field and doesn’t need 90 minutes to prove it.
This is Anibaba’s 12th season in MLS, making him no stranger to league competition. In that time, Anibaba’s played for six different clubs and is a leader on and off the field, holding the title of co-founder and treasurer for the Black Players for Change organization.
The two center backs retained for 2022 include supporter-favorite Josh Williams. The Copley, Ohio is set to enter his ninth season for the Black & Gold.
It would be natural to assume Williams will line up next to captain Jonathan Mensah as the potential starting pair. Even with the addition of Milos Degenek, Williams and Mensah have strong chemistry on the backline and know the competition in MLS. However, that’s now in question after the final Carolina Challenge Cup friendly, a 3-0 win against Charleston Battery where Williams went down with a hamstring injury, and was substituted. Head coach Caleb Porter doesn’t think the injury is serious, but Columbus is going to be careful.
If healthy, Williams provides a spark on defense and brings a high work rate on the field as a sound defender and decision maker.
Columbus’ highest-profile signing of the offseason, Degenek, brings experience in Europe’s biggest club tournament, the Champions League. Degenek is a 27-year-old Australian international who joins the Crew after spending three and a half seasons with Red Star Belgrade of the Serbian SuperLiga. In that time, Degenek and Red Star won the SuperLiga three times and played some of the biggest names in the Champions League.
On the field, Degenek looks like a slenderer defender than Crew fans are used to seeing at center back, but Degenek’s size is deceptive. He’s both physical and quick, as supporters saw in his 90 minutes against Charlotte FC. Degenek joins the Black & Gold looking to prepare for the 2022 World Cup Finals, where he hopes his Australian National Team can make the cut.
That World Cup motivation adds to a defender who, on paper, has the resume to be the No. 1 center back on the Crew. Degenek’s spent time in Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia in only nine years as a professional. All Degenek knows is adjusting to new leagues and new challenges, and if that trend continues in MLS, he could shore up a defense that slipped in 2021.
Leading not only the defense, but the team itself as its captain is Mensah. This is the Ghanaian defender’s sixth season with Columbus and third wearing the armband. In those six years, Mensah has been the Crew’s more consistent defender. Each season, Mensah’s started at least 23 matches, his most notable being the 2020 season where he didn’t miss a single minute in the pandemic-ridden, MLS Cup-winning season.
Defensively, Mensah is as sharp as ever after settling into his role after a tough start to his time in MLS in 2017. Mensah dictates the movement of his defenders and midfield from his center back role.
Mensah will also continue to turn defensive stops into offensive movement in 2022, as he’s the strongest Crew passer on defense. His ability to pick out players quickly is crucial in Porter’s game where the ball starts at goalkeeper Eloy Room and sometimes hits all 10 outfield players.