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The Crew’s defensive struggles must lead to changes on the backline

The pressure is on the defense to be geat while the Black & Gold struggle scoring but the issues at the back continue to pop up.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew is over a third of the way into through the 2022 season and little has gone the way the team hoped. With 12 matches in the books, the Crew has 13 points and sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. While that looks grim, Columbus has one less match than most of the conference and is only three points behind the seventh, and final, MLS Cup playoff spot.

There are still 22 matches to play this year, but the struggles on offense — the Black & Gold have been shut out six times — don’t elicit feelings of hope for the rest of the season. Head coach Caleb Porter’s team played six of its 12 matches against teams in playoff positions and has had one goal in those matches.

As the Crew faces one more match before two weeks off from the MLS play, Porter’s seat is raising in temperature while there aren’t signs that the goal scoring will improve until a Designated Player can be added in the summer.

But lately, it is the Columbus defense that has been alarmingly the issue.

Outside of set pieces at the beginning of the season, the Crew’s defense was sound. The Black & Gold have two clean sheets this year, coming against D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City who sit in 11th and 13th place in their respective conferences.

Lately, defensive lapses hurt the Black & Gold. Up a goal against the New England Revolution on May 7, Columbus conceded twice on defensive mistakes, once when a defender allowing an attacker free space to arrive unmarked at the back post and another when the midfield did not track back on a change in possession.

Against New York City, there was a missed tackle at the top of the penalty box followed by two center backs letting an attacker run behind the defense that did in the Black & Gold.

Saturday was the third week in a row where fixable defensive issues cost Columbus. The first goal for LAFC came courtesy of second half substitute Carlos Vela, the 2019 MLS Most Valuable Player. After a rare poor touch from Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe led to a free ball toward the backline, Vela poked the ball past center back Josh Williams for an open look at goal.

The second of a 2-0 loss came the second due to other issues at the back, which included Nagbe again.

“The second goal was a mistake that i’ve never personally ever seen out of Darlington,” said Porter after the defeat. “He’s the best possession player in the last decade. He is the best ball-playing midfielder in the last decade the analytics show that.”

After a defensive tangle between the highest-paid MLS goalkeeper in Eloy Room and Williams almost led to the second LAFC goal, missing inside the net by a foot, Room opted for a quick goal kick. Nagbe received the short kick and lost the ball immediately, a rare missed pass reception and the LA offense pounced. Midfielder Jose Cifuentes won the final ball and had an open run and shot for the second.

Darling Nagbe receives the ball with enough room to take a touch and play out of the back but misses on his touch, leading to a second LAFC goal.

Although Porter mentioned Nagbe as the person responsible, who in all fairness did lose possession in the defensive half of the field, it was a quick goal kick that put Nagbe in a high-pressure situation. (Although, this is a situation that Nagbe, one of the best central midfielders in MLS, is known for escaping.)

At this point in the season, the Black & Gold are in a spot where there aren’t goals coming in most of their high-profile matches. With fewer goals going in at the other end, the defense is taking a brunt of the punishment on the field. As players move forward trying to break through palpable pressure to score and win, Williams, Room and Jonathan Mensah are being left behind and it’s wearing.

Something Porter has done lately is move pieces of the Crew offense around. He’s changed formations, brought in James Igbekeme from the bench and even put Lucas Zelarayàn in as a False 9. This is something Porter may now need to explore on defense.

The Black & Gold brought in a center back with international and Champions League experience in Miloš Degenek. After Williams suffered an injury during the preseason, Degenek started each of the first eight matches but hasn’t started since after suffering his own injury and the fine play of Williams stepping in.

“I think always with the backline I like to keep continuity,” said Porter about Degenek’s move to the bench. “When Miloš came out and Josh came in, we got three results in a row. So I’m not a guy that’s going to just yank a central defender or a goalkeeper out because we lose a game.”

Columbus’ backline looks tired. Porter is fortunate to have three good, starting-level central defenders and a veteran experience in Jalil Anibaba. Now might be a good time to start rotating different players into that defense, for a few reasons.

Degenek’s adjustment to MLS is important. The Australian international is the youngest center back on the team at 28 years old and has a wealth of experience at top levels of the sport. MLS is notorious for requiring adjustments on the defensive side. Degenek’s continued spot off the field won’t help like minutes on the field.

Mensah also will need rest at some point. While all players want to be on the field, the Ghanaian is important for the team’s success. Giving Williams and Degenek shifts together allows him that time to rest and offenses a different defense for preparation.

Also, rotating the center back trio gives the team longevity this season. In the early stages of the 2022 MLS season, Mensah and Degenek both referenced communication on the field as not much of a problem for two professionals. The turnover of learning each other’s styles isn’t as big of a concern with the Crew’s group of defenders.

Whichever way Porter goes with his decisions, either having his players work through their funk or rotating to try to breathe life into the defense, the results on the field require improvement if the Black & Gold want their strong defensive core, an improved core than the group that won the 2020 MLS Cup, to put the Black & Gold back into the playoffs in 2022.