A steady rotation of eight defenders, including five center backs, helped lead Columbus Crew SC to a stout defensive year during the 2018 regular season, most notably on the road.
Of course, laying claim to Major League Soccer’s Goalkeeper of the Year helped fortify the defensive statistics this past season, but as a unit, Crew SC’s defensive effort – as preached by the coaching staff all season – featured a collective display, starting from the top and ending at the goal line.
With nearly a third of Columbus’ regular-season matches ending in a shutout, Crew SC stood as one of three teams with 11 or more clean sheets and 50 or fewer total goals conceded. Of those 11 shutouts, six came on the road, a mark tied for second League-wide.
Five players – Lalas Abubakar, Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, and Milton Valenzuela – totaled 20 or more appearances and at least 15 starts, while Alex Crognale, Connor Maloney, and Gaston Sauro combined for 13 appearances. Notably, Sauro, who faced a fifty-fifty chance of returning to professional soccer after suffering for a career-threatening knee injury, returned to the field in 2018, making six starts from June 30 through the end of the regular season.
Efficient in their 50-50 balls, the Black & Gold sported the highest tackle success rate of any MLS team (68.89 percent) and, overall, faced the fewest shots on target with 130 total. Following a scoreless draw against FC Dallas in Frisco, Texas on Sept. 15, Crew SC sported the best road defense – statistically speaking – in MLS, laying atop a number of road categories including shutouts, goals conceded, and shots on target faced.
By the end of the regular season, the Black & Gold allowed 29 road goals, the sixth-fewest League-wide, while its 72 shots on target faced on the road – an average of nearly four per match – marked the fewest in MLS.
In addition to sporting the League’s top ‘keeper, Valenzuelawas named to MLS’ 22 under 22 as the No. 12 selection. Valenzuela, who was recently signed as a permanent transfer from Newell’s Old Boys, played 2,557 minutes during the regular season, the fifth most out of any Crew SC player while leading League defenders with 27 successful crosses from open play during the regular season. Considered as a box-to-box defender, Valenzuela totaled one goal and six assists while also ranking third in the League among defenders with 57 successful tackles.
Continuing with the team’s accolades, as a unit, Crew SC defenders totaled 13 MLSsoccer.com Team of the Week nominations.
Meanwhile, between the pipes, goalkeeper Zack Steffen made 29 starts while backup Jon Kempin made five, earning a 2-1-2 record compared to Steffen’s 12-10-7. Kempin’s five regular-season starts marked the second-highest total of his nine-year MLS career, while Steffen’s 10 shutouts in regular season play marked a new personal career high.
In just his second year of MLS regular-season action, Steffen made history by setting a new Crew SC record for the longest shutout in regular-season play, maintaining a clean sheet for 525 consecutive minutes. Steffen's streak is also the eighth-longest regular-season shutout streak in MLS history, and for his efforts in the month of May, Steffen was named MLS Player of the Month presented by EA SPORTS™.