Defense a strength for Crew, Achilles heel for Galaxy

Ahead of Saturday’s MLS match between Columbus Crew SC and the LA Galaxy at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., both teams are talking defense from different perspectives.

Columbus (8-5-6, fourth in the Eastern Conference with 30 points) is in a good spot defensively with depth at the center back position.

The Galaxy (6-7-4, eighth in the Western Conference with 22 points) is smarting once again from a defense that could not keep a lead in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with visiting DC United, the last-place team in MLS with 11 points.

In the California Clasico against the San Jose Earthquakes last week, the Galaxy led 3-1 early in the first half and ended with a 3-3 draw. On Wednesday, they led 2-0 early and conceded an 85th-minute goal to DC United striker Darren Mattocks.

“We had a 2-0 lead and we give a goal to the opponent that allows them to resuscitate themselves and breathe life into their game, and that’s something that we can’t do,” Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid said. “We need to be better. We as a coaching staff need to work harder, because obviously what we’re doing hasn’t been enough at this stage.”

Columbus, meanwhile, is getting stronger on defense because of players returning from injuries. Crew SC remains one of the league’s best, allowing only 19 goals in 19 games.

Last Saturday, in a 2-1 win over visiting Real Salt Lake, Gaston Sauro returned from knee injuries to make his first start in an MLS regular-season game since October 2016.

Fellow defender Josh Williams returned to the field Tuesday for an exhibition against visiting Costa Rican club Saprissa after missing two games with concussion-like symptoms. Williams scored a goal in the rain-shortened, 60-minute match won by Crew SC 2-0.

With four healthy center backs — Sauro, Williams, Jonathan Mensah and Lalas Abubakar — a strong competition exists for two positions based on Crew SC’s 4-2-3-1 formation under coach Gregg Berhalter. This allows Berhalter flexibility to switch to a three-center back formation if a game calls for it.

“If we want to play three center backs, we have that option. It gives different looks,” Berhalter said. “They all have different skill sets, and it’s gonna be highly competitive to get on the field.”

Despite this favorable position defensively, Berhalter said after the friendly with Saprissa that he is leery of facing a hungry LA Galaxy team that is fighting for the playoff-clinching sixth spot in the Western Conference.

LA is one point behind No. 6 Vancouver, which has 23 points in the standings.

“I think LA has a lot of quality,” Berhalter said. “I think they can hurt you in a number of different ways. Regardless of who plays on the field on Saturday, I think it’s going to be a difficult game for us.

“They have a nice big field. I think we want to use that to our advantage. We know it’s going to be a tough game. We know that they have quality to score goals. They’ve been showing it lately (with 11 goals in the last five matches).”