Welcome to our first Massive Report Roundtable. This is where, about once a month (or when the situation demands it) a few of us on the MR staff will chat, argue and implore on all things Columbus Crew SC, because, hey, we're fans too. In this installment we catch up after a big win over the Seattle Sounders, take stock in where the team is, how things are going and what might be ahead. Without further ado...
JOSH MLOT: The past month has seen Columbus Crew SC win three out of four games. The first two were against teams that have some issues. Then there was a frustrating loss against one of the East's best, followed by a bounce-back win against one of the West's best. How do you feel about where the team stands right now? Are the Black and Gold the team that seemed stumped against D.C. or one that excited against Seattle?
MATT WEISGARBER: I think we crush at home and on the road it's a toss up. Tough call with the road scheduling being what it has been — road teams played are all top of the league, so it may be a false negative. I think if they played the season opener (against Houston) again it's a 2-1 win; Kamara is much more acclimated now.
Home-road splits are becoming a meaningful trend. Yes, they played the Whitecaps well... but they also gave up a lead twice. And they drew New England... but it wasn't inspiring. They look totally different at home versus on the road. I think they are BOTH teams we see. That's not riding the fence, it's the truth. Which means they need to kill it at home to ensure home-field advantage if they're going to win the (MLS) Cup.
MARK GRAINDA: They can go from dominating, like they did against Orlando and even Seattle, to getting dominated against D.C. They also just have average games like they did against New England.
Because they are inconsistent it is hard to say exactly what team they are. When they play like they did against Seattle they deserve to be a part of the Supporters' Shield talk, but when they get beat like they did against D.C. it makes you second guess yourself.
JM: Let's treat this statement as fact — Columbus is a team that's going to own MAPFRE but maybe find the going tougher on the road. If that's the case, doesn't it look like the schedule is set up for Crew SC to own the summer? There are some marquee matchups at home in L.A., Red Bull, Sporting KC, Dallas, New England — but the road schedule seem really (and I mean really) manageable. There are multiple games against the expansion sides, Philadelphia, Montreal, Colorado. Real Salt Lake is looking like a team that can't buy goals right now. I know anyone can beat anyone in MLS, but I don't see a truly daunting road game until September 19 at D.C. United again.
If that's the case, are we considering the Supporters' Shield a legitimate possibility, even with a little ground to make up right now? I know that's really big-picture right now, but let's go ahead and breach that topic. Two months into the season we kind of have a feel for what this team is and could be. How do we reassess what the realistic goals and expectations are for this club?
MW: I still think the Supporters' Shield, or at least top club in the East, is a realistic goal with the talent and points already earned. But IF it's going to be realized, the club needs to find a way to beat a parked bus. ... The issue stems from last year. Berhalter's teams can't beat a packed box. Maybe that's because packed boxes are hard to play against, but part of beating that is not going down early. When Crew SC give up the first goal, teams know they don't need to play open and Columbus struggles greatly. ... This puts a lot of pressure on (Steve) Clark, (Emmanuel) Pogatetz, and (Michael) Parkhurst to keep the sheet clean until a goal is scored.
What troubles me is I haven't seen much from Berhalter varying his style against a parked bus. The 18-25 yard range was available against both D.C. and New England and Columbus has players capable of hitting from there — Federico Higuian and Justin Meram have shown a good ability to do so — but the team seemed insistent on living or dying by the cross. I'd like to see Meram and Higuian stretch the defense out of the box by taking distance shots — which they can hit — to open up lanes for Finlay and Kamara to run in. But that's just one man's opinion.
MG: I think Supporters' Shield is possible, even a U.S. Open Cup run. I'm curious to see how much effort they will put into the U.S. Open Cup. But as Matt said, they'll have to learn to play more consistently. Finlay needs to start producing more.
MW: Finlay is interesting. If he could finish those runs he makes, the Black and Gold would be undefeated. But if he could finish those then he probably wouldn't be here, as he would be playing in Europe. I see Finlay as a poor man's Theo Walcott — great speed, good runs, but inconsistent finishing — though Finlay gives you WAY more defensively than Walcott. Finlay's defense has improved this season. He is so close to becoming a complete player.
MG: I totally agree — Finlay is a solid player. Crew SC need him to have a year like he did last year. He's still learning though; he'll get there.
MW: We need Finlay to play well, but lack consistent finishing so he doesn't get poached by some English Championship team in the summer.
JM: Coming into the season there was some question, at least for people who buy into analytics, whether Finlay and Justin Meram could replicate last year's breakouts. They were ahead of their expected goal totals, which would seem to indicate there was some element of luck to their goal numbers. Currently, Finlay's current goal pace (1 goal every 373 minutes) is way behind last year's (1 per 109). Meram's has improved (1 per 180 compared to 2014's 1 per 210). All that aside though, it doesn't feel like either have taken a step back from last season. Both are making a serious impact on the field and both pass the eye test. Maybe we're still unclear about exactly how many goals Crew SC can count on from them, but last year was clearly not a fluke. I think that's been a huge positive through the early part of the season, because I know I was one who was concerned that maybe last year was partially smoke and mirrors for those two.
Combine that with the introduction of Kei Kamara and I think it's obvious the attack has evolved into something better from last year. At the same time, though, we see performances like against D.C. where the game plan doesn't seem to work. Matt, you referenced it earlier — thus far there's been struggles coping with teams that bunker. Luckily I think D.C. fits into a unique intersection of teams that bunker but also have the talent to withstand an assault without the dam breaking.
I think we all agree, though, that there has to be some flexibility, especially when the potential to face some of those teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs is pretty high. What adjustments do you think can address that? Is it as simple as letting Pipa control the ball more to try to use his creativity to unlock things? We saw against Seattle — a defense that had typically been good keeping teams out of danger areas — that the Black and Gold found ways to score both from a cross as well as with the ball at Higuain's feet. My gut tells me the Argentinian is the key here.
And to piggyback on that...How scared are you guys of Kamara getting injured? I was ready to hit the panic button when he pulled up after slamming his foot on the ad boards in D.C. I'm terrified of the options after him.
MW: Schoenfeld is truly terrible, regardless of what Patrick Guldan says. If Kamara goes down for any length of time, it puts tons of pressure on the rest of the team. I think they can make the playoffs without him and win the Open Cup without him, but that's the ceiling.
As far as Meram and Finlay, I wrote an article that predicted declines using the factors you mentioned before the season began. Meram has evolved Pokemon-style. He has such confidence and ability on the ball now to create space where there is none. He routinely takes on double or triple teams and lives to tell about it. I think one of the keys to unlocking defenses is giving him license to shoot outside the penalty area. Also, I agree using Pipa as the creative No. 10 is crucial. He can break down any bunker given enough opportunities.
Finlay's goal scoring has regressed but I don't know that it matters. Defenses still can't forget about him or they pay (a la Union) so even though the goals aren't there, he still frees up the rest of the attack.
You make an interesting point too — how many teams are good enough to bunker against this attack? I would think most teams wouldn't have the personnel to do it for a full 90, or even 75 minutes. So they key is not getting down. The key to unlocking the bunker may actually be the back five on defense.
MG: I tweeted out the other day during the game that Columbus are now 4-0-1 when scoring first and 0-4 when being scored on first. Clearly getting an early goal isn't necessarily always going to happen, but as Matt said, the back five have a lot to do with the way the game goes.
Without Kamara, where would Crew SC be this year? I've wondered... what if they were able to pick up another DP? Not necessarily an international superstar but another player to bolster the attack.
MW: I've thought about another DP, Mark, but where do you put him? Kamara, Higuian, Finlay, Meram, Saied and Pogatetz have all played themselves into conversations for the best at their positions in the league. Cedrick is coming in July. I can't see Finlay losing his starting spot. There probably isn't much room for improvement if you replace Parkhurst with a DP, and I can't think of a fullback DP in the league. Unless Beasley is? [Note: Demarcus Beasley is a DP] The only position I can think would be Tony Tchani, but Will Trapp is coming back and who would you rather have holding than Trapp/Saied?
In the words of Arsene Wenger from earlier this year, "You want me to buy a player, show me what's available that's better than what I've got?"
MG: I guess to me, the reason the Black and Gold aren't one of the "more known" teams in MLS is because they don't have an international superstar. They are the exact definition of the old logo — the team that works hard and does well without paying for it.
MW: I'd love to see a list of DPs and compare them to our current squad. International superstars tend to carry an inflated price tag and I wonder, to a man, how many perform up to the DP level (i.e., top at their position)?
MG: I'm not sure I'd replace anybody. Fortunately for Crew SC, they have a solid team without (a big price tag). I agree DPs carry a huge price tag, but the superstars are meant to put butts in the seats.
JM: I'm with you guys on all of that. I'd love to see a bump in attendance with a DP, but as far as on the field...It doesn't seem like a good value play. You'd be spending a ton of money when you already have quality at basically every position. That said, could you sign a DP with more talent than at some places on the field? I think so. You could argue that on a pure talent-to-talent comparison, a DP who lived up to his contract would be an improvement over just about everyone on the roster other than maybe Pipa and Kei (and Will Trapp, long term).
Of course, it's not just about talent-to-talent. It's about fit and actual performance and how MUCH more they would offer than an incumbent on one-third of the salary. For example, theoretically, if you pay a winger DP money they SHOULD do what Finlay is doing but also be a consistent finisher. But the chances of that actually happening are slim, and Finlay has earned his place with his play. The extra money spent would be unlikely to equal the amount of actual production increase you get on the field, even if the DP would still offer something marginally better.
I think that understanding is something that Crew SC has been tremendous with. It's a smaller market than many, that can't be denied, so it makes more sense to make smart decisions rather than bold ones, and it has paid off in spades in building this team.
A roster has been built where — and I think the things you guys are saying support this — even if the opportunity to bring in a DP were there, I think most fans would be hard-pressed to pick a current player they'd be willing to sacrifice. There's a sense that the fans really like these guys. They've liked having a guy like Pogatetz slip under the radar and come in and be a wall back there. They've loved watching guys that were SuperDraft picks come good years later and become upper echelon wingers in this league. I think it also speaks to why Kamara can fit in so well to the environment — this guy was a Crew draft pick and years later he comes back, essentially a totally different player, but he's still "one of us."
However, I do think it would be wise to spend some cash to bring in another forward. You're not going to get a DP that's going to want to sit on the bench, but you could get a quality striker who could be used as a sub and actually be useful, plus would boost the club's U.S. Open Cup hopes. And if we're being honest, does anyone believe that Kei isn't going to go through a dry stretch? In the dog days of summer, Columbus is going to need a guy that can start a handful of games when Kamara either isn't scoring as frequently or needs a break.
I also wouldn't mind seeing some money go into a center back. If I'm being quite honest, Tyson Wahl does not engender my confidence for anything more than a handful of sub minutes in a game that Columbus is already controlling. And we have no idea what Sergio Campbell is.
Long story short, I think there are plenty of places to inject a little money, even if a designated player isn't the way to go.
While we're on the topic of personnel... Winger depth. Kristinn Steindorsson has been very average. Maybe part of that is lack of rhythm because his playing time has been limited by Meram, but I just have yet to be inspired. I guess maybe depth players in MLS will never be inspiring, but I think many people had hopes he'd be a boost. We probably shouldn't underrate the value of an average player on the bench when many teams have below average guys there, but am I wrong for wanting more?
Then there's Cedrick, who seems to inspire some excitement because we know he's really fast and that's all we really know, so we don't have to think about his warts yet. If you look at his numbers, he's not a goal scorer. Numbers obviously don't tell all, but what do we think he brings when he ultimately arrives? Is he just another Dom Oduro? Is that OK when you're not relying on him to start every week?
And with all those guys...Where does that leave Romain Gall? Personally I'd like to see him go to USL and get playing time and confidence, and then maybe come back two months from now and try to make an impact. I'm of the opinion that people generally expect too much out of young players, but at the age of 20, it would be nice to see him at least getting an occasional opportunity as a sub. I mean, if we're talking about a guy who might provide a little different attacking look than the go wide and cross approach, it would seem he could help, even if GB protects him by only using him in favorable situations late in games. This organization has been good about developing young guys and giving them a foundation, so I trust that's happening even if we're not seeing him yet, but I'd like to see what he's made of.
That's an awful lot of thinking, and you guys probably didn't even bother reading all of it.
They didn't. They completely ignored me. While they were ignoring me, the news broke that Hernan Grana was parting ways with the club and heading home due to homesickness. So we wrap up the discussion with that...
JM: Right back has been a rotating door for Crew SC for a while now and I think a lot of people thought that was over when Grana came on board. He endeared himself quickly to the fans and seemed more than serviceable on the field. Personally, I had some questions about how his style affected the team's dynamic, but he was exciting going forward and solid tracking back.
My first inclination is that Columbus will be OK without him, but how much do you think he'll be missed? I think he was steadier as a one-on-one defender than Hector Jimenez, and when Waylon Francis leaves for the Gold Cup we're left with Jimenez, Chris Klute and Chad Barson. Is that enough?
We know what this team will be attacking, but defensive consistency will be key, and certainly this announcement won't help in that department.
MW: It needs to be said that I think Grana is doing the RIGHT thing. I'm assuming the story is true here. As a father. I can attest to being there for your wife and child is so much more important than work, it's not even a discussion. We love sports, but in reality it's a job for Grana and I wouldn't recommend anyone take a job that far from his family. Boys growing up without dads isn't mentioned enough. I've worked in a child psych unit and if those kids had fathers I don't think they would be there. It takes courage for Grana to walk away for his family.
That being said, no, we don't have enough. There's a reason Jimenez and Barson weren't considered enough when the offseason started. They don't give much defensive coverage when they get forward. Jimenez was excellent against Seattle, but I don't like to use a player's career-best game as a standard for their performance moving forward. I don't like the fullback depth at all. And it's gone from a strength to a potential liability.
I actually blame the Crew staff for not seeing this coming. Assuming the story is true, signs should have been there.
MG: I'm with Matt, assuming the story is true and that is the real reason that Grana is leaving, there isn't much else Crew SC can do. On another note, with Francis and Jimenez the only time I'm concerned is when Francis leaves for the Gold Cup. Columbus will need to search for another back during the next transfer window.
On to San Jose. We'll see you next month.