COLUMBUS, Ohio – Columbus Crew SC have a defensive problem, and it hasn’t been solved by their biggest offseason addition.
In a 2-0 loss to Atlanta United at home on Saturday, Columbus found themselves with a leaky defense yet again, allowing two goals and plenty of chances to an Atlanta team that has no problem capitalizing on the mistakes of defenders.
Involved in both goals was center back Jonathan Mensah, who completely missed a ball in the air to lead to the first goal and misplayed a cross on the second. After the match, Mensah admitted he didn’t have his best game.
“I think I wasn’t there today — I was kind of tired,” he told reporters. “The whole team also, we all felt short. This is not a time to point fingers. I personally know I wasn’t there today, but we just need to put this behind us and keep working.”
Mensah’s mistakes have been ongoing this season and have led to several goals. The list includes explicit examples like his missed aerial duel with Alan Gordon in Colorado that lost Columbus the game, and a blatant penalty awarded because of a foul against Tosaint Ricketts in Crew SC’s 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Toronto FC.
Columbus sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter had a difficult time defending his marquee defender after the match on Saturday. He said he needed to evaluate the game and “individual performances” before speaking on them. But when pressed about Mensah, he seemed to admit that his defender is struggling.
“It’s difficult for defenders to adapt to this league sometimes,” Berhalter said. “What we’re doing is working with Jonathan to help him adapt. In general, I think at times it’s been very good and at times it hasn’t been so good. But I don’t think it’s different than [how] anyone on the back line has been playing.”
Columbus are still fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but must improve defensively to make a run. Crew SC have given up 32 goals – more than anyone but Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake – and have had earned just two clean sheets in their last 14 matches.
Berhalter prefers not to call out individual performances or make sweeping judgements about his team. He admitted his club has “given up too many goals,” but didn’t say he would be making any major changes to his style.
“The shape wasn’t bad, it really wasn’t,” he said. “I don’t think [Atlanta] picked us apart at all. I think it’s a few key moments – having the desire to win the ball. When you look at their goals, the assist [on the first] was from a goalkeeper. You wonder how something like that happens. So that needs to be better. We need to clean that side up.”
The Columbus boss has options on his bench. Rookie Homegrown defender Alex Crognale surprised many with his quality minutes early in the season, while Nicolai Naess has been one of the first names on Berhalter’s lineup for the last year.
Berhalter declined to say exactly where Naess stands, having started just once in the club’s last six matches.
“He stands where every other player stands,” Berhalter said. “Any guys who aren’t playing want to work and try to get back on the field. Any guys who are playing want to work and stay on the field. He falls in the category of a guy who hasn’t played and wants to work his way onto the field.”