What a difference three weeks and two games can make. The Columbus Crew entered the MLS season as an afterthought, ranked 12th in the MLS Power Rankings heading into the campaign (up from their 15th place finish in 2013), yet now are one of the favorites in the league.
According to Sports Club Stats, which takes previous games and simulates results for the remainder of the year based on performances, the Black and Gold are the odds on favorite to make the MLS Cup Playoffs, 82.3%, win MLS Cup, 9.2%, and win the Supporter's Shield, 15.8%. Columbus has moved up seven spots from their initial Power Ranking position and continued results will move them higher.
And some people thought this was going to be a rebuilding year...
It is way too early for these odds to mean too much, but what they do show is how quickly perception can change. The Crew didn't make many alterations to their squad in the offseason but they did make a few key ones. First was the appointment of Gregg Berhalter, who has completely altered the team's style of play, as head coach and sporting director.
Fans were impressed in the opening game against D.C. United, but seeing the team play in person two weeks later against the Philadelphia Union was more remarkable. The movement of the players and the total buy-in was on full display in the home opener and it was a breath of fresh air in Columbus Crew Stadium.
As Berhalter has consistently pointed out, there is still plenty of room for growth and there are issues that need to be addressed, but the improvements the team has made from last year to the beginning of this season have had an effect on those who keep tabs.
The league has taken notice of more than just a change in style by the Crew under Berhalter. Last week, midfielder Bernardo Anor was honored as MLS Player of the Week after his first half brace over the Union. Michael Parkhurst's solid first two performances in Black and Gold have earned him a call up to Jurgen Kilnsmann's squad for next week's U.S. Men's National Team friendly against Mexico as he looks to find his World Cup group.
Giancarlo Gonzalez, a late offseason signing, has thus far filled the gap left by Chad Marshall and made several crucial tackles when Philadelphia was piling on pressure. Wil Trapp was essential to any success the Crew had last season, but has stepped his game and leadership to a new level in year two. Without him, Berhalter's philosophy does not work as the anchor in the middle of the park.
The sudden improvement, and drastic way it has happened, has shocked many involved in MLS. A team that was expected to fight for a playoff spot transitioned to a sophisticated style that is hard to defend and entertaining to watch in one offseason. Few expected that.
Two games is a small sample size to start making predictions on how the season will go, but there is data to support that this is a new team that can have success. The emphasis on dictating the style and pace of the game was unheard of in these parts before this year and if that continues, these probabilities could become realities.
Buckle up. This is going to be a ride.