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2015 MLS Cup: How Gastón Sauro has quickly improved Columbus Crew SC defense

The Columbus Crew SC conceded 53 goals during the regular season. That figure was the sixth most of any team in MLS and most among Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoff teams not named Toronto FC.

Allowing that many goals would usually prohibit a team from being an MLS Cup contender, but the Crew SC have become one of the best teams in the league thanks to their prolific offense, which scored 58 goals during the regular season and six more in the playoffs.

One other factor that has helped fuel Columbus’ run to the MLS Cup has been the addition of Gastón Sauro. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound center back made just four starts in the regular season (his first one ended after just seven minutes) but has helped solidify a struggling back line.

In the six games the Argentine has started (excluding his first start), the Crew SC have conceded just six goals (0.95 goals-against average). In the 32 other games Columbus have played this season, they conceded 51 goals (1.59 GAA).

Sauro brings a physical presence to the center-back tandem that Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl do not. Emanuel Pogatetz provided a similar presence in his opportunities but failed to be a solidifying force for Gregg Berhalter’s team. Columbus conceded 23 goals in Pogatetz's 16 starts before the Austrian was dropped from the starting lineup in mid-July.

You can see exactly what Sauro brings, as compared to Columbus’ other center backs, in some of the numbers below.

Crew SC Center Backs
Player Aerial Won % Aerials/90 Tackles/90 Interceptions/90 Passing Accuracy
Sauro 70.0% 4.7 1.9 5.5 87.3%
Parkhurst 41.7% 2.6 1.4 3.5 84.5%
Wahl 50.0% 2.9 1.0 3.4 84.6%
Pogatetz 64.7% 6.0 1.1 2.9 84.2%

Sauro is a more comfortable player in the air than Parkhurst or Wahl and provides a little more defensive grit than his two counterparts. Pogatetz has similar numbers to Sauro, but as stated above, he did not live up to Berhalter’s standards.

The pairing of Sauro and Parkhurst actually compares similarly to a recent MLS Cup-winning center back tandem.

Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin swere one of the top center-back pairings in MLS over the course of their four seasons together. The highlight of their time together came in 2013, when they led Sporting to an MLS Cup win over Real Salt Lake.

Besler was the more cerebral partner, as he was counted on to organize the back line, make smart passes out of the back and provide stability next to his more reckless partner. Collin used his big frame to push players around, get involved in tackles and be a daunting presence in the air.

That kind of relationship is similar to the one that Parkhurst and Sauro share. You can see that in the numbers that Besler and Collin put up in 2013, when Kansas City conceded just 30 goals in 34 games, making them the best defensive team in the league.

Sauro-Parkhurst (2015) vs. Besler-Collin (2013)
Player Aerial Won % Aerials/90 Tackles/90 Interceptions/90 Passing Accuracy
Sauro '15 70.0% 4.7 1.9 5.5 87.3%
Parkhurst '15 41.7% 2.6 1.4 3.5 84.5%
Collin '13 65.3% 7.4 2.8 4.5 76.3%
Besler '13 59.6% 5.3 1.6 3.0 80.3%

But let’s not forgot what team was one of the five best defenses in MLS in 2015. That would be the Portland Timbers.

The Timbers conceded just 39 goals during the regular season, tied for the third fewest in the league. They were led defensively by veteran center backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell.

Borchers, a long-time MLS veteran, was acquired prior to the 2015 season, while Ridgewell was signed to a Designated Player contract in the middle of the 2014 season.

Their partnership is unlike Sauro-Parkhurst or Collin-Besler pairings in that they play fairly similarly. You can see how their partnership differs from the other two pairings below:

Sauro-Parkhurst vs. Borchers-Ridgewell
Player Aerial Won % Aerials/90 Tackles/90 Interceptions/90 Passing Accuracy
Sauro 70.0% 4.7 1.9 5.5 87.3%
Parkhurst 41.7% 2.6 1.4 3.5 84.5%
Borchers 54.6% 4.2 0.7 2.4 84.9%
Ridgewell 72.6% 3.0 0.7 1.9 76.3%

Borchers and Ridgewell will be looking to slow down the high octane Crew SC attack, while Sauro and Parkhurst will have to deal with a suddenly hot Timbers front line.

Despite their differences, all four of these players will have a huge impact on who will lift the trophy on Sunday (4 pm ET; ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMás in US, TSN1,4, RDS2 in Canada).