Hello. You probably aren’t even reading this. More likely, you’ve put this miserable Columbus Crew SC season in the rear-view mirror and are busy distancing yourself for a moment, enjoying the fresh air that doesn’t taste of disappointment.
But if you’re still around, still wallowing in your misery and digging around for a nugget of hope among the mess, we’re still here pondering the 2016 season that was and beginning to think about what the future holds.
Here are a handful of thoughts about the season that was (or wasn’t, if you consider how it went).
The season is over. Not in the way it has been for a little bit for the Black & Gold, but in the real, there-are-no-more-games-in-2016 way.
This is a good thing for Crew SC. We’re all going to miss Black & Gold soccer; we’re all going to miss MLS. But it was time to put this one to bed for good. The 2016 Columbus Crew season has been, mercifully, euthanized.
Now there’s time for everyone — coaches, players, fans — to take a deep breath, stop worrying about the next game and really turn the spotlight on how to fix the mess that was the last seven months.
Where’d everyone go?
The list of Crew SC players who went AWOL in 2016 is long. It’s much easier to name the players who had above-average campaigns — Justin Meram, Steve Clark, Ola Kamara. Maybe Harrison Afful. I’m comfortable with ending the list there. Everyone else seemed to take a step back.
Wil Trapp’s development seemed to slow. Tony Tchani’s season was one of fits and starts and odd fits on the field. Waylon Francis — arguably one of the league’s best left backs the previous couple of years — went MIA halfway through the season. Federico Higuain seemed to begin to slow, and then was injured for the most critical stretch of the season. Ethan Finlay was a shell of himself for half the year. And some of the guys brought in for depth were either outright failures or simply didn’t make impacts, even in small roles.
It’s really hard to be successful when you’re counting on so many no-shows.
A hard look at Triple G
This is not a call for Gregg Berhalter to be fired. Make sure you understand that. It’s simply a reminder that everyone — fans, ownership, Gregg himself — needs to reevaluate the coach right now.
Berhalter came in for the 2014 season and made sweeping changes to how the team plays. It was thrilling and exhilarating. Last season the final run overshadowed some in-season inconsistencies and left everyone with a good taste in their mouth. But this campaign was hard to watch.
GB has his team play such a distinct style, there are pros and cons that come along with it. In 2016, the cons were glaringly obvious. It wasn’t until the final third of the season, and at least partly due to a hand forced by injuries and absences, that we saw Columbus do some different things, often to positive ends.
I hope Berhalter embraces that moving forward. “Pragmatic” often has a negative connotation among soccer fans, but it needn’t. The counterattack can be exciting and effective. I don’t think anyone wants to see the Black & Gold abandon attractive soccer though.
So Berhalter has about three months to figure out how to continue to tweak his approach and incorporate some different things that can make this team more flexible and less predictable. How to balance the innate defensive weaknesses in his system with the need to get three points.
This is how Gregg Berhalter will be graded — not on how things fell apart this season, but on how he picks through the rubble and rebuilds.
The need for No. 10
Early in the season the club and its fanbase faced a question it never thought it would need to: Kei or Pipa?
In my mind, this team was already on the off-ramp to Struggle Town before it kicked Kei Kamara out the door. His departure is not what derailed 2016. And as we saw with Ola Kamara’s phenomenal goal-scoring rate and 16-strike season, it actually was possible to replace Kei’s output.
But when Higuain went down with injury, there was a complete dearth of creativity in the attack, and a noticeable regression in terms of controlling the tempo of the game.
Pipa’s future with the team is in question. It’s hard to argue he’s not less effective than when he joined the club — there’s nothing that can stop the aging process. Moving forward as a team may require finding pieces that are more long-term solutions than Higuain can or will be for Crew SC.
Regardless, this team needs a creative No. 10. If you look at the teams around the league, you need an upper-level creative attacker if you expect to be successful (look at the playoff teams, and you’ll see all of them have one, even if they aren’t a prototypical central No. 10 [and still, most have that]). For as much as Meram has grown and as good of a season as he had, I don’t think he is enough.
What we learned in 2016 is that if Columbus expects to bounce back, it needs to address this — whether an outright swap, or a more gradual changing of the guard.
Break up the gang
With all that in mind, it’s time to break up the group. We saw almost no changes coming out of a positive 2015 and into 2016. There were a few depth players brought in, but that was it. Those guys were mostly flops, and there was no new blood making an impact. That changed in the summer transfer window with the introduction of Nicolai Naess, who has the potential to make a huge impact on the back line as the club moves forward. That, however, is the extent of the notable changes for the team in the last 12 months.
There need to and will be changes this offseason. What they will be is yet to be seen, and it should make for an exciting few months, even if the team is never stepping on the field.
Who should go? Who is untouchable? What does the team need? It’s all delicious fodder for discussion in the coming weeks and months. Be ready, because no one is safe.
If we remember the 2016 season as anything, it should be peak Major League Soccer. The tectonic plates beneath the MLS surface are always active and whatever you think you know, you probably don’t. Yesterday has little bearing on tomorrow. That’s how you end up with Columbus plummeting to one of the worst records in the league and the MLS Cup champions missing the postseason.
Not that that should make anyone feel much better about how the season went for the Black & Gold, but it provides hope for the future. The margins are so thin in this league — the teams so evenly matched — that all it takes is a tweak here or there for major shifts in the hierarchy to take place. If you have any faith at all in Berhalter and Anthony Precourt, this should buoy your spirits as you turn your sights toward 2017.
Enjoy the offseason and expect the unexpected.