OBETZ, Ohio – Columbus Crew SC teams under head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter have all had an identity.
With attack-minded wing backs, a creative No. 10 and target strikers who are always near the goal, Berhalter's teams have always been attack-oriented, even if it means giving up a few more goal-scoring chances than their more conservative opponents.
But this year, things are different. Crew SC have allowed just 10 goals, good for the fewest in the league, despite having played more games than all but one other team.
So how has the team shifted its identity so quickly? Berhalter doesn’t believe they have.
“It hasn’t changed,” he said. “We’re still an attacking team.”
The familiar Ghanaian trio of Lalas Abubakar, Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah returned this year to anchor the backline, and were supplemented by the talented young left back Milton Valenzuela, with veteran Josh Williams providing breaks for Abubakar along the way.
The result has been a surprisingly cohesive unit that has fixed a tendency to hand opponents easy chances.
And while the Ghanaian trio spend plenty of time together on and off the field, all three of them say there’s far more to the defensive output than playing together as countrymen.
“It’s always fun when you wear the black and gold colors and you’re representing the Columbus Crew, whether it’s with the Ghanaians or Josh or whoever it is,” Mensah said. “You just go out there and represent the badge. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
After a debut season full of ups and downs in 2017, Mensah has developed into perhaps the team’s most consistent player, and has become a leader on and off the field in Columbus.
Afful, who has known Mensah for years as the pair played on the Ghanaian national team, said he’s been proud and happy to watch his friend and teammate grow.
“That’s one thing I like about Jonathan – and I’m not saying that because he’s my friend or my brother from another mother – it’s not easy to travel to a different country to play in a different league,” Afful said. “He’s really adapted and I’m really happy for him. I see him as a really experienced player, so I’m not surprised."
Mensah has admitted multiple times that his first season was difficult, but credited a full preseason and another year learning the ways of MLS for this season’s consistency.
“It took a while before I got everything figured out,” he said. “But the credit goes to my teammates and the staff. They did a great job. … Knowing your opponent and the league and referees and everything, I think it plays a role in this league.”
Perhaps thanks to Mensah as a role model, Abubakar has also focused on self-improvement this season. After the team’s 1-0 win over the New England Revolution in which Abubakar scored the game-winning goal off of a corner kick, Berhalter said his young center back approached him to say he “didn’t play great.”
“Here’s a guy that scored a game-winning goal, is at the top of the world, the team wins and he’s immediately thinking, ‘Hey, I need to improve; I need to get better,’” Berhalter said Saturday.
That mentality means something to Berhalter, who said he hopes his entire team feels that way.
He said he thinks his defense has “stepped up into a different echelon this year,” but hopes they’ll continue to be hungry for improvement.
“That’s the whole team,” he said. “My philosophy on this is that when you get a group in the beginning of the year, we try to move them along. We try to develop every day, every week, every month we try to get better. And if we can do that, you put yourself in position at the end of the year to potentially compete for something. That’s not just the defenders; that’s the mentality of the entire group.”