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Mo Saeid’s departure leaves opening for a better fit in midfield

Saeid’s departure creates opening to retool for better performance on offense and defense

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire
Mo Saeid out the door of Mapfre; Will find a comfortable home in Minnesota
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

MLS Expansion draft was last week and Columbus Crew SC’s Mo Saeid left for Minnesota United FC. Unlike other picks, it appears that Saeid will remain in Minnesota, but let’s not forget that (historically) a lot of expansion draft picks get traded away before ever actually taking to the field. It’s the nature of “the game” -- the game of the draft. As Massive Report’s Editor in Chief Patrick Guldan said a few days prior, “The expansion draft is about value. Mohammed Saeid is value.”

While reading this I encourage you to think about a few questions, What is Mo Saeid’s value to Crew SC; is it greater that what Minnesota United appraises? And most importantly... Can Crew SC find greater value in another central midfield player?

Mo Saeid’s expected value

Now, when I speak of value, I mean it beyond the monetary sense. For Columbus, they need to improve. They need players that will take them beyond their recent standing. Last season was a great setback from the previous, and while the team had a deep squad, production left much to be desired. Saeid was a great player for the black and yellow, but bar injuries to Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani, he was routinely second choice.

To weigh the value of the team’s needs in a simple sense, Crew SC needs guaranteed starters -- Players who are unquestionably going to start every match; push the test of every team they face; and most importantly win games.

While Saeid may well be a starting-caliber player in this league, I do not believe he fits Berhalter’s system particularly well. To label his Saeid’s archetype, he is an undersized, pass-first #8. While his passing ability and vision fits a Berhaltarian system, his positional movements and profile mirrors that of a certain Wil Trapp but with less defensive ethos. And in effect, the pair in central midfield leads to a very low-tempo and static passing game. This often results in little-to-no transitional play into the attack.

If we move to the defensive side, things arguably get worse as the setup favors an excessively passive approach. In combination with a lack of physicality and defensive ability, opponents often are able to generate a multitude of uncontested attacks. Crew SC needs a better fit for that role and the archetype in demand is not that of a Mohammed Saeid.

While his fit in Minnesota is near-impossible to estimate, as the team is a complete black box, he has the potential to bring a lot of value to an Adrian Heath system. For Saeid to have been effective in Columbus in the long-term it would have taken either a Trapp departure or a drastic systematic change. While I am personally sad to see him go, his departure allows Gregg Berhalter the roster space and monetary flexibility to bring in a player who will solidify a spot next to Trapp in the weekly team sheets. I fully predict Berhalter will do just that.

But if Gregg Berhalter brings in another starter… What about Tony Tchani?

The perfect question to start the conversation of Crew SC’s offseason needs. There are several heavy demands for the team, and we will get to those in future articles but today let’s keep on the topic of central midfield. While both Saeid and Tchani are high quality players, neither truly fulfill the needs desired of a central midfield partner to Wil Trapp.

Evaluating the need of a transitional midfield partner for Wil Trapp

To compare the two, Tony Tchani and Mo Saeid are nearly polar opposites. Tchani lacks where Saeid excels, but has strength were Saeid lacks: Physicality; aerial presence; aggression; and tackling skill. But most glaringly, where they both lack is in the transitional game which has been a major weakness of Berhalter’s team in Columbus since the beginning.

You all see it: Crew SC collects the ball in the middle of their own end with the opposition pushed high, but rather than looking to break on the counter the ball is cycled around the defensive line. An over-emphasis on drop passes and lateral movements has proven a hindrance to the offense. While part of this may be strategic, (to set up players in advanced positions for an attack, etc.) there is a clear lack of ability to engage in the offensive transition when it is desired.

The few times in a match when a quick transition does occur it is often through the flanks. This may be fine in itself, but on direct counters the center of the pitch is widely considered the most crucial area. This offensive recipe, one could argue, has been the primary catalyst of the team’s lackluster expected goals-to-actual goals statistic in 2016. With the middle of the park often left stagnant it fosters a one-dimensional attack, and one that is statistically bound to be unproductive.

But, it is not merely the attack that suffers as a result: the defensive transition is plagued by similar faults, caused by the offensive transition woes.

The centrally-neglected attack results in a host of players on the flanks. This “umbrella shape” created often leaves only Wil Trapp and Tchani / Saeid to do the duty often required of four men in the center of the pitch. While some systems do this with purpose and proper effect (see Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool), Crew SC’s defense is far too passive to capitalize on this. Part systematic, part personnel, this problem can also be seen when either Tchani or Saeid venture far into the attacking zone; neither player possesses the adequate speed, quickness, or defensive impact required to make an effective defensive transition.

Similarly, on the offense, the lack of speed and quickness becomes exacerbated by a weakness in dribbling ability and work rate. What we see here is a cyclical effect where the inadequacies of the defensive-to-offensive transition cascade to the defensive end, and vice-versa. This, in effect, has been the primary catalyst of the back-and-forth midfield play that was seen throughout the 2016 season, with little initiative on the attacking end.

Looking forward: A small part of a big issue

While it is true that bringing in a star-studded DP may not remedy all of these issues, I think it is safe to say that it could help the team get closer. Get closer to being a team that makes a playoff run every season; to be a team that is both entertaining to watch and reliable; and to be a team that contests the MLS cup as well as the supporters shield every season. Don’t get me wrong, Tchani and Saeid are both very good players, but the requirements currently in Columbus ask for something a little different. Now that Mo Saeid is gone I see a chance that Tony Tchani may stay. That being said, I do not expect him to be an in-and-out starter come the spring unless a tactical change is in order.

For the role of Trapp’s midfield partner, I see desire for a player who can command a game through the center of the pitch. This player would have tremendous work ethic, physical presence, dribbling ability, and adaptive positional understanding. This team has a lot of work to do in the offseason, and central midfield is merely a part. However in my honest opinion it is the most crucial. The demands required may seem like it would take a superhero and maybe so — which is why I believe the team should bring in a designated player in the center of midfield.

We may have wanted Saeid to be this man, but it would have been in a forced fit. This move allows him to go shine in Minnesota and enables Crew SC to bring in a player that will better fit demands. It will be a busy January and this is merely the first step of many which are needed to bring Crew SC back to a championship winning side.

Up next, we address another major offseason focus for Crew SC: Winger Production.

Stay tuned...