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2023 Crew season preview: Center backs

The Black & Gold have a lot of experience back at the center of the defense

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Inter Miami CF Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season is less than a month away. As we head to the new year, Massive Report takes a look at the Columbus Crew’s position groups as they currently stand and break down what we expect from those positions in the coming season. Here are the center backs.

The Columbus Crew head into the 2023 season with some unknowns in the first year under head coach Wilfried Nancy. Most notable among the questions that surround Nancy’s Crew is what formation the Black & Gold will play.

In the past, Nancy has played a version of a 3-5-2 formation, meaning the three center backs are required to be solid defending in the open field as well as comfortable with the ball at their feet. Distribution to both the fullbacks and midfielders is vital for the progression of the ball into the final third in this system.

Nancy could also play with four in the back, more like what Columbus fans were used to under previous head coaches Caleb Porter and Gregg Berhalter. Either way, the center backs will be important for the Crew’s defensive success in 2023.

Let’s look at the options the Black & Gold have at center back heading into the new year.

Milos Degenek

Degenek tallied 2,238 minutes in 28 appearances for Columbus in his debut 2022 MLS season. That led to him making four appearances for Australia in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, helping his country reach the knockout round for the sixth time in their history.

At 6-foot-2, Degenek is a dominant aerial presence. His ability to clear corners and free kicks is only strengthened by his partnership with Johnathon Mensah, a part of the game in which both of them excel.

Degenek’s distribution, however, isn’t often talked about but he is extremely effective, completing 84.4 percent of his passes in the 2022 season. His consistency in progressing the ball will be instrumental for the Crew in possession this season.

In 2023, look for Degenek to be a consistent an important part of the team’s backline. Given his international experience and ability, plus a familiarity with MLS he did not have last year, Degenek will be important to help keep the ball out of the goal.

Keegan Hughes

The Stanford alumn and Black & Gold Homegrown Player signed recently signed his first first-team contract with Columbus.

During the 2022 collegiate season, Hughes captained the Cardinal and earned first-team All-American and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors while helping the team get to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

The first-year professional will bring a youthful presence to an otherwise aging Crew backline. It is likely Hughes spends most of his time learning this level with Crew in the MLS NEXT Pro reserve league, but could see some first-team action if needed, especially in competitions like the U.S. Open Cup.

Jonathan Mensah

Editor’s note: Jonathan Mensah was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes in the days following this publishing.

Mensah made 30 appearances for the Black & Gold last year while tallying two goals and an assist during the season. Mensah was third on the team with accurate passes, completing nearly 88.8 percent of his attempts during the season. He also played the third most minutes of all outfield players in 2022.

Paired with Degenek in Porter’s typical four-man backline, the two dominated in the air. While Columbus had its struggles last season, the Crew was one of MLS’s best defensive sides, allowing just 41 goals, and Mensah was a major reason why.

Mensah’s pace and all-around athleticism help him in one-on-one situations and in recovery or to keep up with opposing strikers. As the captain of the Crew, Mensah will once again be a regular figure at center back for Columbus in 2023.

Josh Williams

Williams returns for his 15th professional season, 12 of those with the Black & Gold.

During the 2022 MLS season, Williams played in 23 matches, starting 15. While Williams was never paired with a specific partner, he often came into the game to help keep a lead, where he was either a left or right center back in a back five. Along with the other veterans on this list, Williams is strong in the air as well as a strong passer out of the back, completing 86.9 percent of his passes made.

Williams’ experience and leadership, even if he’s not on the field as much at 34 years old, will be important for Nancy as he looks to continue to the defensive success this team had in 2022.

Philip Quinton

The No. 25 overall pick in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft pick is entering his first season with the Crew’s first team. Last year, the Notre Dame product played for Crew 2, making 16 appearances while helping the team to win the MLS NEXT Pro Championship. He recently signed a first-team contract after competing for a spot on the roster this preseason.

Standing at 6-foot-6, Quinton was a key factor in the set piece defense at Notre Dame, not allowing a goal off a corner kick during the 2021 season. He was equally as important in this department for Crew 2 last year. As the tallest defender on the roster, Quinton’s height could be a factor when on the field.

During the 2023 season, Quinton will continue to develop as a professional player. While he is likely behind the likes of Degenek, Mensah and Williams on the depth chart, Quinton will have to be ready in case his number is called.

Final Thoughts

The Crew has a reliable core of center backs with a couple of players that like have an eye on the future. Degenek, Mensah and Williams seem the most likely grouping if Nancy sticks with his formation from CF Montreal, and this group brings invaluable to anchoring the team.

For Quinton and Hughes, making sure that they are getting minutes to continue to develop is important. Crew 2 could be a place where both players stay fit and help the continued growth of their development.

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