OBETZ, Ohio – For most teams, an offensive uptick starts with attackers – strikers, wingers or playmaking midfielders. But for Columbus Crew SC, their recent attacking resurgence owes much to their fullbacks.
Gregg Berhalter’s aggressive fullbacks have been a hallmark of his system in Columbus for some time, but the current starting pair have taken the position to another level while coming at the game from opposite ends of their careers.
On one side, veteran right back Harrison Afful remains the same integral component as he was in Crew SC's 2015 MLS Cup Final run. At the age of 32, Afful still retains top-class speed and stamina to go with his considerable technical ability.
“The guy is like a greyhound; it’s amazing,” Berhalter said. “He’s so lean and fast and strong.”
On the other flank, 20-year-old Milton Valenzuela has become one of the best young fullbacks in MLS after arriving on loan from Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys in the offseason. Despite the task of learning a new league and new country, Valenzuela has consistently improved his attacking, positional play and awareness in his first MLS season.
“He’s played so maturely, he gets judged at a different level,” Berhalter said. “If he’s any other 19-year-old in the league, people are raving about him. If he’s a US citizen, everyone is talking about him being the next left back for the national team.”
The pair have been instrumental in helping Columbus reach the point where one result against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN 2, TVAS) will see them make their third Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Championship appearance in four seasons.
Against the Red Bulls last Sunday in Columbus, Valenzuela’s aggressive run and pinpoint-accurate, line-splitting pass opened Higuain up for the gorgeous flick that gave Gyasi Zardes the game’s only goal and Columbus an advantage heading into Sunday.
With the fullbacks playing the way they are, their teammates know how important they’ve been to the club’s postseason run.
“Their quality in the final third is a big part of their success,” Justin Meram said. “You see [the difference] when these guys deliver good balls in the box. … When they’re on, usually we create a lot of chances.”
Afful and Valenzuela don’t have easy jobs, either.
In 2014, Berhalter's first season in Columbus, center back Josh Williams made a few appearances at right back. He said he had to lose 10 pounds to get into shape for the role, and said the position has evolved so much under Berhalter that he doesn’t even think he could do the job anymore.
“I’ve done it, so I know exactly how much running that takes,” he said. “The way our offense is moving now, with how much running and one-on-one defending they do …I don’t think you could have somebody my size out there anymore. It’s just too much running.”
And with their season on the line, Berhalter and his team know they’ll need to rely on their fullbacks if they want to stay alive.
“There’s no secret that the fullbacks are a big part of our attack,” Berhalter said. “Getting them forward, getting them making accurate passes, accurate crosses, getting them into the penalty box is really important for us. They’ve done a good job of that lately.”