Columbus Crew SC fans find themselves In a foreign state this preseason. Most personnel moves made were minor, most positions have already been sorted out, only one coach needed to be replaced (and that was out of necessity), and no new system was being implemented. Finding "take aways" from this preseason was difficult, as the most pressing questions are "who starts between Kristinn Steindorsson and Justin Meram?" And "We're pretty sure Hernan Granna is the starting right fullback, but what is his newborn baby's name?"
This is good news for fans and the team, but a bad thing for bloggers searching what to write their weekly column about. Why? Because stability is the hallmark of a well run organization and a winning team. Clubs that struggle during the season generally have tumultuous offseasons. This is often because of heightened speculation of promise which almost always turns disappointing. Crew SC finally finds itself in a stable place, able to use the preseason to fine tune rather than rebuild. This bodes well for a season to build on last years success.
That being said here are my six take aways from the preseason:
6. Hernan Grana is better than expected
When Grana signed, he was considered a depth option to a depleted back line. When the preseason opened he was considered the second or third option at right back behind Chris Klute and Hector Jimenez. Grana was given a few chances to play this preseason and has taken hold of each one, scoring two goals and notching two assists. Combine that with stellar defensive presence and precise passing and he has found himself a favorite to be named the opening day starter. Grana also gives a Veteran presence to a young team. He plays with a skill and confidence that should make him a valuable asset. Not bad for a player who was nearly kicked out of his previous club, Boca Juniors in Argentina. The change in scenery seems to have benefited Grana, and head coach Gregg Berhalter looks poised to reap the rewards.
5. Kai Kamra will contribute more on the field than only goal scoring
Kamara was brought in to score goals and I believe he will do that. I have a bet with a Massive Report reader that he will score more than 12 goals this year (Editor Note: Massive Report does not condone illegal gambling). After watching him play this preseason, it has become clear that he is able to do more than just put the ball in the back of the net. He hols up play well. What does that mean? That he can stand over the ball draw defenders to him and then pass the ball to the newly open attacker. He can also do a great job in combination play, connecting attackers together to unlock a defense
Kamara brings energy, hold up play, combination play, and goal scoring to the offense that already possess two double digit goal scorers from a year ago in Ethan Finlay and Higuain. This should lead to overwhelming opposing defenses and many Crew SC goals.
4. Competition is stiff for playing time on the left wing
Have we forgotten about Romain Gall? The talk of Meram, Steindorsson and Cedrick for playing time on the left side of the midfield has been the most compelling storyline in preseason. This is because these are three great talents fighting for one spot. But what about Gall? He was fantastic for the US U-21s and played well in cameos last year. This means there are four talented players for one spot. This should lead to increased squad rotation, substitutions, and fresh legs down the playoff stretch. It also makes statistics out of any of these players difficult to predict. Berhalter may chose to play the match ups for this position all season.
Also, note that each of these players can play another position on the field, giving the Black and Gold options and depth.
3. This team is looking more cohesive in year two of the Berhalter's era
Late last season, Berhalter said that Finlay was struggling early because he didn't understand what the coaching staff wanted of him. As Finlay, and the rest of the team began picking up the nuances of Berhalter's system, their play improved dramatically. Crew SC started strong last year over the first three games, only to stall out, before picking up steam as one of the best teams in the MLS over the last 10 games.
From what we can see so far in the preseason Crew SC are picking up where they left off. The link up play, overlapping runs from the winger and fullback, well placed crosses, Higuian finding guys in space, are all improved from last year to this one. This preseason the core of the roster is intact. Eight of last year's 11 starters are returning (depending on if Meram starts this year). This means nearly every player is comfortable and familiar with the system and each other. This is a major asset heading into the new season.
2. This defense still has work to do
The second to last preseason game against the Philadelphia Union showed that this defense is still unable to cope while put under heavy pressure. When the defenders and holding midfielders don't have space or time with the ball, they still make strange decisions and are prone to turn overs. This is a major concern, as the script is now out on how to disrupt Crew SC's style. The New England Revolution dismantled Columbus in the playoffs last year by pressing, and they won't be the last team to try that approach. With an offseason for opponents to prepare for this style of play (Crew SC certainly aren't the only team that look to possess out of the back), this team may have issues if the players don't get it sorted out.
1. The players love being part of this team.
If you are a fan of the Black and Gold, do yourself a favor and follow all of them on twitter. Chad Barson, Wil Trapp, Kei Kamara, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, Mohammed Saied, and company have great exchanges with each other almost daily. Early in the preseason Kai Kamara trolled Justin Meram.
@keikamara Hahahhahaa you funny bro. Better be golden nuggets in that burrito with a side stash of if you want that beautiful number!— Justin Meram (@JustinMeram) January 24, 2015
This social media banter doesn't mean Crew SC will win a cup this year, but it does mean they enjoy each other and the locker room and training ground are great places to be. When players enjoy each other ,they play hard for each other. When players play hard for each other, they outwork the opposition and get results.
Berhalter Prides himself on being a player's coach. Stories leaked out last year about Berhalter routinely asking players if they were pleased with life in Columbus, if they were happy with the system, city, and living situations. The dividends of this approach are a team that love the city and love wearing the badge. I love this team and I would root for them regardless of who put on the jersey, but being able to see their heart is in Columbus and what a good group of guys adorn the massive banana kits is a joy to behold.