To say the Crew have hit a rough patch is an understatement. After three wins to open the season, Columbus has gone 1-6-8 since. The team has slipped to sixth place in the Eastern Conference and are on pace to miss the playoffs for a third straight year. Head Coach and Sporting Director Gregg Berhalter's first season in charge has become a very bumpy one.
Team Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt gave Berhalter total control over the soccer operations last November. Precourt backed him with reportedly a four year contract; Berhalter would have the time to implement his vision of Columbus Crew soccer from the academy to the first team.
The rough patch has prompted some examination of Berhalter's project. The team struggles significantly to score and the defense has leaked enough goals to let results slip.
Berhalter has instilled a possession based offensive scheme, stressing keeping the ball and building from the back. The team ranks high in MLS in possession percentage, total passes, and passing completion. Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain, and Tony Tchani rank in the top 10 league wide for passes per 90 minutes. It's an appealing system in action with wing backs pushing forward, Higuain floating around, and wingers slashing into space, but the goals haven't come.
The drawbacks of possession based soccer can be that the team holding the ball doesn't shoot. That doesn't appear to be the Crew's problem. Columbus ranks a respectable 8th in MLS in total shots. The issue is that they rank 18th in accuracy at 41%, only San Jose has worse aim (39%). That leaves the Crew offense 15th in the league with 20 goals.
While the offense has struggled, the defense has been sound. The additions of Michael Parkhurst, Giancarlo Gonzalez, and Waylon Francis have solidified what could have been a painful transition. Trapp and Tchani have been very good at shielding a stretched back line under Berhalter's system. Even after the defense's destruction at the hands of Thierry Henry, the defense is still 7th in the league.
To get the team playing his brand of soccer, Berhalter moved a lot of players in and out of the team. In addition to Eddie Gaven's shock retirement, stalwarts Chad Marshall and Andy Gruenebaum were traded. Danny O'Rourke was cut.
Berhalter confirmed the signing of Francis and traded for Daniel Paladini and Hector Jimenez. He traded for the rights to goalkeeper Steve Clark who had been playing overseas. The two main pickups were the acquisition of Michael Parkhurst and the transfer of Giancarlo González.
Even after the start of the season, Berhalter kept trying to find the right mix of players. Ryan Finley was given a fresh start with Chivas USA. He also quickly moved the recently re-signed Dominic Oduro to Toronto for winger Alvaro Rey.
Clark, Francis, Parkhurst, González, and Jimenez have quickly become starters for Berhalter and the defense quickly steadied. González had an excellent World Cup and may even be sold on for a handy profit. The offense relied on players that had struggled to score for the past several years and the results have been the same. Berhalter has yet to make a signature move to improve the offense, landing a goal scorer.
The Big Question
The solid defense and the misfiring offense does lend credence to the calls for more firepower. Higuain has had to shoulder the load on offense. He leads the team with six goals and five assists with 43 key passes. Only Ethan Finlay has shown a spark recently with four goals and two assists in his last seven games.
Most of the offensive options date to the Robert Warzycha and Brian Bliss era and results have been similar. Only Jimenez and draftee Adam Bedell are new faces along the front line. Jimenez started at right wing before being shuttled around to right back and left wing. Holdover Bernardo Anor was the incumbent left winger, but Justin Meram, Jimenez, and Ben Speas have also started games. Jairo Arrieta, Berhalter's preferred choice at forward, has three goals in 16 games.
Would a forward help the team? Undoubtedly. Arrieta, Oduro, Meram, Bedell, and Schoenfeld have all seen time at forward for the Crew and the combined strike force only has four goals. A consistent goal scoring threat would draw some of the defense that now can collapse on the overworked Higuain.
Would it transform the team? That's a more difficult question to answer. The Crew have adapted well to Berhalter's possession based soccer. The defense keeps the team in most games. It's a similar plan to other possession dominating teams. Sporting Kansas City, the Portland Timbers, and Real Salt Lake play possession soccer and when it works it can steamroll the league, but it does depend on consistent offensive threats. All three have forwards that can score, but they also get contributions from the midfield.
The Crew are getting help from Finlay who has developed into a threat on the wing and Higuain is as crucial as ever as the scoring playmaker. The rest of midfield hasn't developed into a consistent threat. The revolving cast at left wing has created several goals. Anor has been dangerous with two goals, but then struggled. Meram replaced him, but failed to make an impact. Jimenez saw some time and Speas is the latest player to try an claim the left side. Centrally, the Crew have the outstanding Wil Trapp and the improved Tchani. Neither are offensive threats.
For Berhalter's plan to work, there needs to be some consistency on offense. Only Higuain has performed over the course of the season. The hope remains that Finlay has made the jump to an impact player, that Meram, Anor, or Speas becomes the consistent threat on the left side, that Tchani or Trapp can hone their offensive skills and provide the occasional shot.
The 2014 Crew are likely more than one player away from being a contender. That renders grading Berhalter's project futile. Much like Warzycha before him, he's built a solid defense, but now he has to build an offense. Warzycha couldn't get the right pieces to play the right way. Berhalter struggled in Hammarby with the same problems. Success in Columbus hinges on figuring out the offense. Precourt's given him time, but it's finite.