Defenders also doing their part to generate offense early in the 2019 season
Defense is not the most glamorous part of any sport. That holds true for soccer, yet six matches into this young Crew season, defenders have been at the center of the story.
Sometimes that has been because they've been producing offense. In three separate matches, the Crew's only goal has come off the head of a center back. First it was Gaston Sauro, who'd previously never scored a goal in MLS play, nodding home the Crew's lone tally in a 1-1 draw against Red Bull New York. Sauro scored again two weeks later in a 1-0 win over FC Dallas. Then, Josh Williams headed home the winner in a 1-0 victory against the New England Revolution this past weekend.
All of these goals came off set pieces in the friendly confines of Mapfre Stadium. Because the Crew has only two other home goals (via Zardes and Pedro Santos on one ridiculously cold and soggy night against Atlanta), center backs now account for more than 50 percent of the Crew's home scoring. It seems like only a matter of time before Jonathan Mensah adds one or two of his own.
The drama has not just come from the men in the middle coming up big on set pieces, though. It's also resulted from a testing of the team's defensive depth, especially at the fullback position — a test Columbus is passing so far.
In recent years, fullbacks have become increasingly important in high-level soccer. Once mainly deployed in conservative fashion, the defenders on the outside flanks are now tasked with racing up the sidelines to get involved with the offense, too. It's hard to find players who can run as much as the position demands while maintaining a high skill level on both sides of the ball.
The Crew has two great ones in Milton Valenzuela on the left and Harrison Afful on the right, but they've each been knocked out by injuries. No problem: When Valenzuela suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, Columbus reacquired Waylon Francis from Seattle to replace him. When Afful suffered a broken jaw against Atlanta, veteran utility man Hector Jimenez ably stepped in.
Mensah is the only defender who's started every match. Despite the turnover, Columbus leads MLS in shutouts with four in six matches. Only Seattle has allowed fewer goals. Chalk up some of the success to goalkeeper Zack Steffen — a 3-0 loss at Philadelphia was the only match he's missed — but the fluctuating backline in front of him has been impressive, too.
Coach Caleb Porter — who seems to be accepting that converting Gregg Berhalter's methodical, low-scoring squad into an offensive powerhouse will take some time — has noticed, and he's counting on the excellence continuing.
“You're not outscoring teams every game — that's unrealistic,” Porter told reporters after Saturday's 1-0 win. “And again, this team in the past hasn't scored a lot of goals, so we're going to have to be good defensively.”