The Columbus Crew SC Defense: A Suddenly Skeleton Crew

It has been a whirlwind kind of week for the Columbus Crew SC defense.

It began with the announcement that center back Gaston Sauro suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee in last Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Toronto FC. The injury will sideline the Argentine defender for 4-5 months.

Then came news that attacking midfielder Cedrick Mabwati and right back Harrison Afful were called up by their respective national teams. Mabwati will join DR Congo for two friendlies (vs. Romania on May 25, vs. Egypt on May 30) and an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at Madagascar on June 5. Afful and his Ghanaian national team take on Guinea in a friendly on May 28 and travel to Mauritius for a similar AFCON qualifier.

The Columbus Crew SC Defense: A Suddenly Skeleton Crew

The absences of Sauro and Afful loom large defensively for Crew SC’s next two games. The club faces Real Salt Lake this Saturday (7:30 PM ET, MLS Live, TWCSC-OH, CW Columbus, KMYU) and Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia next Wednesday. This will be followed by a two and a half week break for Copa America Centenario.

But it’s not just those two aforementioned players who could be missing. It remains unclear whether or not Tyson Wahl will be available as well. The center back suffered a concussion in training and hasn’t been in the lineup since the Black and Gold’s May 7 game with the Montreal Impact.

The club also parted ways with off-season signing Amro Tarek earlier in the month. When you factor it all in, you come to the conclusion that there’s a very real possibility that Michael Parkhurst might be the only true central defender available for the next two matches.

Even the fullback situation is complicated. With Afful away and left back Waylon Francis having lost his starting job to Corey Ashe, that component of the back four might be lacking in terms of players who’ve logged appreciable minutes this season.

It presents a challenge for Crew SC head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter. This is especially true if only Parkhurst can go in central defense. It will likely necessitate shoehorning a player into that role alongside him.

This is exactly what Berhalter did in Toronto when Sauro had to come off in the 35th minute. It was their rookie defensive midfielder Rodrigo Saravia who was forced into action. And the fact Columbus held a player of Sebastian Giovinco‘s quality scoreless for 55 minutes speaks to the Guatemalan’s effort in an unfamiliar spot on the field last week.

The only other viable option if Wahl is still unable to play is Tony Tchani. The Cameroonian has been utilized primarily as a box-to-box midfielder for Crew SC. But his height and acumen at winning possession could potentially be useful in the middle of the back four.

But even Tchani’s been bitten by the injury bug. A nagging calf injury has seen him out of the lineup since the club’s 1-0 road defeat against the Seattle Sounders. And Berhalter has hinted that the earliest we could see him in the 18-man squad is against Philly.

The tea leaves appear to be indicating that Saravia is in line for the first start of his professional career Saturday night. Considering his inexperience, the fact he’ll essentially be playing out of position, and the opponent on the night, it won’t be easy.

RSL will come into Columbus sporting the third best record in the league. They also might be bringing in an air of confidence in terms of being able to leave MAPFRE Stadium with a result. After all, the Claret and Cobalt are coming off a 3-1 road drubbing of Sporting Kansas City last weekend.

The visitors have proven to be particularly dangerous in transition. That’s a bit of a problem for Crew SC, given the fact they’re currently second in the league with 54.5 percent possession per game. Couple that with an inexperienced back line and it could possibly make for a perfect storm in terms of getting hit on counterattacks.

Another corollary to those kinds of in-game situations is conceding set pieces in your defending third. When teams that possess the ball and send bodies forward lose possession, it makes them vulnerable to emergency defending on the counter. This in turn can lead to rash challenges around the box or hurried clearances towards the byline.

Crew SC’s set piece defending has had its share of issues this season. Think of Colorado forward Kevin Doyle‘s goal in the club’s 1-1 tie against the Rapids. Even the two goals off throw-ins scored by Philly and Montreal against Columbus can be characterized as a set piece situation.

This could become worrisome against RSL. The club has five goals off set pieces this season which is tied for fourth-best in the league. Whether it’s Saravia or Wahl joining Parkhurst in central defense, being disciplined with the ball as a team will be paramount Saturday night.

It will be especially so given the toll that injuries and national team call-ups have taken on the Black and Gold this week. And they come at an inopportune time given the standings. Crew SC is currently four points out of the last playoff spot in the East and 19th in the Supporters’ Shield race.

So despite being short-handed on defense, favorable results in these final two matches before the Copa America break are necessary. The season will be more than a third of the way complete for Crew SC after next Wednesday’s game. As such, time is running out in terms of being able to legitimately get back into contention.

Columbus Crew SC News and Notes

  • Crew SC sports a 10-5-3 overall record against Real Salt Lake, including a 7-1-1 mark at home.
  • The 81.5 percent home winning percentage for the Black and Gold in this series is the highest for the team against any MLS opponent.
  • The Black and Gold have not lost at home in regular season play to RSL since 2006.
  • Their last loss at home overall came in the second leg of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals when they fell 3-2. RSL would go on to win MLS Cup that season.
  • Crew SC midfielder Mohammed Saeid continues to lead the league in passing accuracy among players with a minimum of 100 passes. He’s completed 92.9 percent of his passes this season.
  • Steve Clark is set to make his 80th start for the club Saturday, which will pass Andy Gruenebaum for third in Crew SC history.
  • The Claret and Cobalt will be without defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman due to his being named the USMNT’s Copa America roster.

Photo courtesy of Columbus Crew SC Communications.