Sneak Peek: Crew collapse prompts big defensive changes

As an MLS Cup finalist in 2015, Columbus overcame a leaky defense that allowed 53 goals, second-worst among the 12 playoff teams.

Opening day ...
Projected XI --
Steffen; Afful, Naess, Mensah, Raitala, Trapp, Abu, Finlay, Higuain, Meram, Kamara.

As a ninth-place finisher last year, Crew SC conceded 58 goals -– second-most in the entire league – and will look much different this year in the back.

This is the lineup head coach Gregg Berhalter sent out for the preseason finale against Seattle on Saturday, and a 1-0 victory – especially the "0" part --- reflects a greater commitment to defense, as one would expect from a former U.S. international defender. Gone are two mainstays of the 2015 team, keeper Steve Clark and former captain Michael Parkhurst; in their place are Zach Steffen, who joined the team last year and played nine games on loan with Pittsburgh of the USL,  and defender Jonathan Mensah.

“I think we’re looking good,” said Steffen after the victory over Seattle. He left the University of Maryland after his sophomore year to play two seasons in Germany with Freiburg’s second team. “We’re fit, playing well, learning from our mistakes. We’re working as a team and helping each other. I think we’re ready.”

Gambling on a young goalkeeper -- Steffen is 21 and has never played a professional top-tier competitive match -- is just one of several moves taken by Berhalter to shore up the spine of the team. Mensah has played more than 50 games for Ghana and Mohammed Abu may have supplanted Tony Tchani in the center of midfield.

With Gaston Sauro, one of the team’s few defensive bright spots last year, sidelined with a long-term knee injury and Finnish international Jukka Raitala currently edging Waylon Francis for the starting job at left back, Crew SC could start the season with three changes in the back five (including goalie).

Berhalter also tinkered with a three-man back line in preseason and certainly Francis and right back Harrison Afful could man the wingback slots in that case. Whatever alignment the coach chooses, it must bring a greater defensive stability to support and attack that features several of the league’s top players in their positions, though there are concerns about Federico Higuain, who required hernia surgery last year and played only 20 games. He played 90 in the three previous seasons (2013-15).

Higuain looked sharp as Crew SC captured the Carolina Challenge Cup by beating Atlanta United along with Seattle and tying Charleston. A bounce-back season for him could mean the same for his team.

The schedule provides Crew SC an excellent opportunity for a fast start. Four of the first five games are against teams that failed to reach the playoffs last year. Included is an MLS Cup final rematch against Portland at Mapfre Stadium, site of the Timbers' victory.

Who’s in …
GOALKEEPERS: Logan Ketterer (Bradley Univ., SuperDraft). DEFENDERS: Lalas Abubakar (Univ. of Dayton, SuperDraft), Alex Crognale (Univ. of Maryland, Homegrown), Connor Maloney (Penn State Univ., SuperDraft), Jonathan Mensah (Anzhi Makhachkala/RUS, Transfer), Jukka Raitala (Sogndal/NOR, Transfer), Josh Williams (Toronto FC, Re-Entry Draft).
MIDFIELDERS: Mohammed Abu (Stromsgodset/NOR, Transfer), Artur (Sao Pauloi/BRA, Loan), Niko Hansen (Univ. of New Mexico, SuperDraft), Cristian Martinez (Chorrillo, Transfer), Abuchi Obinwa (Hannover U-19/GER, Free Agent). FORWARDS: None.
 
Who’s out …
GOALKEEPERS: Steve Clark (Horsens/DEN, Free Agent), Matt Pacifici. DEFENDERS: Corey Ashe, Chad Barson, Michael Parkhurst (Atlanta United, Trade), Tyson Wahl (Retired). MIDFIELDERS: Cedrick Mabwati (Murcia/ESP, Free Agent), Mohammed Saeid (Minnesota United, Expansion Draft).  FORWARDS: Conor Casey (Retired)
 
First five games …
March 4 -– Chicago Fire
March 11 -- at Houston Dynamo
March 18 -- at D.C. United
March 25 -- Portland Timbers
April 1 -- Orlando City
1 comment about "Sneak Peek: Crew collapse prompts big defensive changes".
  1. :: SilverRey ::, February 27, 2017 at 12:43 p.m.

    We REALLY need to add one more forward. Especially now with Ola going through concussion protocol.

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