Center back rotation proving to be the right move for Columbus Crew SC

Key players for Sunday's Conference Semifinals | Playoff Central

OBETZ, Ohio – In the Western Conference Semifinals, an injury to standout defender Chad Marshall is showing the Seattle Sounders how important depth can be in the playoffs.

But in Columbus, Gregg Berhalter and Crew SC have built up a center back rotation that’s left the club with four potential starters at the position for the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Red Bulls Sunday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TVAS, TSN2) at Red Bull Arena, a luxury they haven’t always had. 

Columbus have almost always used their extremely consistent star defender Jonathan Mensah in central defense in 2018, but with a rotating cast next to him. Veterans Josh Williams and Gaston Sauro have each played pivotal roles in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup playoffs so far, and emerging talent Lalas Abubakar got 23 regular-season chances to show his worth. 

With Mensah suspended for a Decision Day presented by AT&T clash against Minnesota United and Sauro rested Sunday after a tiring week of action, that trio has all seen important minutes recently, and has kept the Crew SC season alive.

“It’s important,” Williams said of the competition among the group of center backs. “It raises the level out here (in training) which, in turn, raises the level when you have to step in and play a game. You have four players like this…who Gregg can call on and we know the level’s not going to drop off, no matter who’s in there.”

Williams said that competition makes training more intense, and said it’s a good model for how a team should be performing.

“Every day matters,” he said. “Every day, you have come in and put in a good performance or a guy who might not have played the week before or might have been in the stands the week before can come in and take your place. I think it’s good for the team. If we had it at every single position, it would be great.”

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen has watched the group battle all season, and said he’s fully confident in the group that plays in front of him.

He said Berhalter’s management has led to the team’s flexibility at center back in particular.

“Gregg has confidence in every one of his players,” he said. “He can plug in a player and they do well, and that’s just how he coaches. That’s what our team is about. It’s great to see that guys can come off the bench and do well for us.”

Last season, Berhalter wasn’t always able to rely on a deep pool of center backs, and has said all season that with Mensah, Williams, Sauro and Abubakar in the picture, his priority was having them all ready to play.

And regardless of who lines up next to Mensah in Sunday’s second leg against the Red Bulls, Berhalter will have confidence.

“It was important – it was difficult going through the process of getting them all game time and keeping them all fit and rotating them, and we suffered at times because of that,” Berhalter said. “But overall, now we’re in a position where we feel comfortable with all four of them being on the field.”